Over the course of September and October the city of Turin hosted a series of events – both academic and practical – on the role that fair trade can play in achieving the new sustainable development goals of the UN’s Agenda 2030. The events were part of the project ‘Local Partnership for Global Change’, run by the local fair trade cooperative Mondo Nuovo together with the Italian Fair Trade General Assembly (FTGA) and the Municipality of Turin. The project was funded by the EU through its LADDER scheme (Local Authorities as Drivers for Development Education and Raising Awareness).
The inaugural event was moderated by a member of the FTGA. After her brief introduction, Turin’s vice mayor Guido Montanari talked about the sustainability of urban areas and the dilemmas of urban development, mentioning the need to modify the city’s zoning plan and the conflicts that this sort of action can generate. However, he said, a forward-looking policy cannot include only the building of more houses and shopping centers.
Next up was Eleonora Dal Zotto, coordinator of the FTGA. Dal Zotto talked about the publication that the FTGA has recently prepared for local authorities who want to promote fair trade products through public procurement, with a view to achieving the UN sustainable development goals. During her speech she spoke about her experience hosting a migrant who is claiming asylum from Cameroon. This man explained to her that he used to be a cocoa farmer in his country before deciding to leave it. Dal Zotto therefore suggested that strengthening fair trade, which includes cocoa production as an important part of its network, could help with the migrant crisis by allowing more people in developing countries to find a source of income. But positive repercussions could happen much closer to home, she continued, for example in Piedmont, with the entrepreneurial possibilities that processing fair trade ingredients could generate, especially in the patisserie industry, where there are already many examples of this.
The next speaker, Giulio Lo Iacono, talked about the activities of the Italian Alliance for Sustainable Development (ASVIS), which every year organizes the sustainable development festival. He began by showing a slide with statistics that reveal how unsustainable our world is today, proceeding to read a depressing list of facts and figures on the same topic. The aim of the alliance is to push politicians to act. He mentioned that in the near future economic growth is going to slow down, even in the emerging economies, which will create problems for achieving sustainable development. The tone of his speech was technocratic and apolitical, heavily influenced by ecological economics and human ecology (different kinds of capital, ecological and social services, feedbacks, environmental costs, etc.). He talked in more detail about sustainable development goal n.11, which has to do with urban areas, saying that in Italy the problem has always been the lack of coordination between the various institutional actors that are responsible for urban planning. Eventually, Lo Iacono suggested that we need a new way to look at the world and that the latest Papal encyclical is a good example of this. He read a number of things that ASVIS is doing in this regard, all based on the idea of giving more and better knowledge to individuals. The approach of the organization seems the classic ‘attitudes, behaviors and constraints’ one. He talked about the festival they organize as a way to sensitize the population. He spoke of the need for a big cultural change, especially in the business world: more respect for people, more respect for the environment. Part of this cultural change has to do with promoting sustainable consumption, and thus with fair trade. Lo Iacono concluded by saying that ASVIS intends to put pressure on parliament to pass a law that supports fair trade.
Valeria Veglia, the person responsible for environmental planning and education in the Metropolitan City of Turin, spoke at length about the history of green public procurement. She said that “greening” public procurement is very complicated because the rules are still not really in favor of it, although recently there has been an opening. A very sensitive issue is that of the social and environmental criteria that local authorities may use when they write public tender contracts, because being sued by the businesses that lose the tenders for their lack of “green” credentials is not entirely uncommon. This is why local authorities often use the same criteria adopted by famous environmental certifications like the European Union’s Eco-Label. Now the Italian state has also its own “minimum environmental criteria” that can be used. Fair trade could be part of these minimum criteria as an additional advantage. Usually fair trade is part of green public procurement for vending machines, but we should not assume that everyone agrees with its use. Veglia told the audience the story of when she tried to use fair trade products in the vending machines at her workplace and people started complaining because they were more expensive, the coffee wasn’t good, and so on. There is a need to educate people about the benefits of them. The same is true in schools. We should not assume that students will be willing to pay even five cents more for a product they don’t recognize. Prices are an issue not just for consumers but also for local authorities, because even though the European Union now encourages local politicians to spend more if something is environmentally friendly (energy-saving light bulbs, for example), the budgets they receive from central government remain fixed and strongly constrained.
During the Q&A session, Edoardo Dano of the Committee of Municipalities for Peace (COCOPA) said that in the past many local authorities had offered spaces to fair trade shops for free, but that this practice had been killed by the economic crisis and the lack of public resources that has followed it. In this new context there is a need to re-launch the values that fair trade stands for, like sustainable development, because people are showing signs of becoming disinterested in them. Some consumers still care about fair trade, but many just go to discount stores.
The first speaker of the second session was Andrea Calori, who talked about the many connections between sustainability and fair trade at a very general and theoretical level. He was followed by Maria Bottiglieri, who is responsible for the Municipality of Turin’s activities concerning international cooperation. She talked about the various food-related projects that the municipality has done in the past.
Enrico Da Vià, of the local fair trade cooperative I.So.La, then talked about the various educational activities the coop engages in, including a course for NEET youth called Youth Work Net, funded by the San Paolo Company. They also host high school classes for training hours and participate in the national voluntary service. Da Vià also pointed to the existence of domestic fair trade initiatives – projects that take place in Italy instead of in developing countries – as a means to overcome the old conflict between products from faraway countries that have to be shipped in with high environmental costs and local products that might not have any social credentials attached to them. He listed a number of initiatives that he thought belonged to domestic fair trade, like social/civic agriculture, peri-urban organic agriculture, up-cycling activities and diffused artisan productions. He also mentioned that the coop is part of an initiative that promotes the reuse of objects and materials by impoverished local people, funded by the San Paolo Company. The coop sells the things these people make in its three shops. It also hosts disadvantaged people as part-time workers thanks to its legal status as a social cooperative.
The last speaker was Silvia Bergamo, vice president of the Mondo Nuovo cooperative, who began by telling the story of how the coop was created in 2001 when older, smaller local fair trade actors decided to join forces. The future of fair trade is now uncertain and she expressed doubts about whether it will continue to exist in its current form, as the times are very difficult. The crisis of the last ten years has made things harder, but they have still managed to create some jobs with proper contracts, even though the pay is very low. Like some of the previous speakers have already said, many sustainability initiatives are not well received by the public. There is a cultural problem, but cultural change has always been one of fair trade’s main goals. Bergamo told the audience that when she was a university student fair trade was part of a broader movement that many young people were interested in, but that this is no longer the case. In the intervening years there has been growing indifference toward the problems of the global South. Often people ask them: “Why are you trying to help people abroad when there are so many poor people here in Italy?” So in the last few years they have often asked themselves how fair trade can change, what they should do to improve it. Still, phenomena like the current migrant crisis show that fair trade is more relevant than ever, as Dal Zotto already said. So cultural change is fundamental, even though fair trade is a commercial activity, because selling is what they have to do. They used to say that fair trade is a concrete utopia. Bergamo then briefly mentioned the sustainable development goal of gender equality, saying that fair trade has always had a special relationship with women. The vast majority of fair trade customers are women; in their cooperative, 16 out of 20 workers are women and 6 out of 7 members of the board of directors are female. This is their contribution to the UN goal of gender equality. Bergamo concluded by saying that if we want fair trade to continue having a role in society and sustainable development we need to strongly support the sort of cultural change it promotes and give more visibility to it.