Interview: Fair enough?
Joe Osman, who worked for Traidcraft for 40 years since it was founded, talks to Stephen Tomkins
The fair trading business Traidcraft began life in 1974 as Tearcraft, an operation of the charity Tearfund. Joe Osman joined in 1976, three years before Traidcraft became independent, and was a leading member of the organisation until 2019. He saw Traidcraft grow into a business employing 150 people at its peak, with a turnover of £17m. It was central to bringing fair trade into the commercial mainstream, collaborating on the creation of the Cafédirect brand and the Fairtrade mark.
Traidcraft struggled in the 2010s, and announced its closure in 2018. However, a group of employees have kept it going as the smaller ‘Traidcraft II’. Joe Osman spoke to Reform about the 40-year story, and his book Traidcraft: Inspiring a fair trade revolution (Lion Hudson, 2020).
You’ve seen some big changes in the story of Traidcraft over the years.
Yes, when I reflect on it, the history and legacy of Traidcraft has been important, not just in the world of fair trade but in the whole area of ethical trade throughout commerce. But as you live through it, you don’t realise it. You don’t realise, until you look back, how significant the organisation is. I left at a difficult time, which coincided with the 40-year anniversary of Traidcraft’s existence, and that’s what drove me to look back and write about it.
I was the longest serving member of staff, but there were lots of people just behind me. A lot of people stayed for an awful long time because it was such an interesting organisation to work for. And because it was quite difficult to take the skills you acquired somewhere else, because there wasn’t anything else like it.
Can you give me an impression of what it was like when you first started?
It was a startup trying to find its way. There was very much a team culture. There were no real specialisms, because the specialisms didn’t exist. Everybody had to do everything. I’ve just found some old photographs probably dating back to 1979, and one included everybody who worked there at the time – the financial person, the Managing Director – all unloading huge crates of jute products off this flatbed truck, without any thought of health and safety or any proper equipment. When things got busy, everybody packed orders for customers.
There were quite high ideals from the founder, Richard Adams, as to what Christians in business were supposed to be, trying to enact love and justice in a commercial setting, as to how we worked with each other and how we worked with producer groups overseas.
I’m interested in the fact that in the early days Traidcraft was part of Tearfund, but left because Tearfund believed in using only partners who were evangelical Christians.
Traidcraft very much had a vision of love and justice in trade. Proselytisation was not really central to its mission, and it would work with people of all faiths or none. Two of our biggest original suppliers were from Catholic groups in Bangladesh, providing jute products, and Tearfund wanted Tearcraft (as we were called then) to stop working with them because they weren’t evangelicals. It was a good, cordial parting though, and I think Tearfund has probably gone full circle on that issue now.
This is an extract from an interview published in the October 2020 edition of Reform