Fair traders

This weekend my ukulele group The Strumbles played at our local Trade Aid shop for World Fair Trade Day. Trade Aid is one of my favourite shops in Hamilton. It’s full of beautiful things and delicious fair trade food. It’s also a successful not-for-profit business and social justice organisation.

The Strumbles

The Strumbles, playing outside the Trade Aid shop in central Hamilton.

When I first moved to Hamilton I volunteered for Trade Aid for five years, doing a weekly half-day shift. I loved spending time in the shop. (The slight drawback was the temptation to spend money. Trade Aid volunteers get generous staff discounts.)

Working for Trade Aid not only helped me settle in a new city – it expanded my mind and my horizons. It was my first hands-on experience of a model of alternative economics.

Fair trade pioneers

Trade Aid is a unique New Zealand fair trade organisation. It was founded in the 1970s by two Christchurch residents, Vi and Richard Cotterill. The Cotterills returned from overseas travel and wanted to create a local market for traditional carpets made by Tibetan refugees in Northern India. Forty years later Trade Aid has shops throughout New Zealand and sells handcrafts and food imported from all over the world. It is recognised internationally as a pioneer of the fair trade movement.

Trade Aid musical instruments

The Trade Aid shop is a good place to buy interesting musical instruments.

Beautiful spaces

Trade Aid shops are beautiful spaces full of lovely handmade items with gorgeous textures and colours and aromas. The current manager of the Hamilton-Kirikiriroa shop is Laurel Snowdon, who’s a retail specialist with a particular flair for display. (I used to watch her arrange items on shelves with a sense of awe.)

Trade Aid have a great range of musical instruments – shakers and rattles and drums. They stock beautiful baskets and bags, rugs and carpets. Trade Aid spices are superlative – after trying Trade Aid cinnamon I would never buy supermarket cinnamon. And their cocoa is superb, and so are their rooibos teabags and tea leaves. Trade Aid coconut milk is one of the best canned coconut products I’ve found. Most of the food sold at Trade Aid is certified organic as well as being fair trade.

Trade Aid also sell wrapping paper that’s far too pretty to only use once, and hemp twine in vibrant colours. And at Christmas they sell huge woven reindeer – mine has pride of place in the lounge all year round.

Stocking up on fair trade chocolate and coffee before going outside to make music.

Why fair trade?

Trade Aid is founded on the principle of trade as a fair partnership between producers and consumers. This relationship is missing in our postmodern consumer economy, where we expect to buy goods as cheaply as possible, without considering the impact on the people who grew or made the items.

Education is an important part of Trade Aid. All the staff, paid and voluntary, learn about the products and the people who made them, and about the reasons for fair trade. Each shop has an education person who gives talks about Trade Aid to community groups and schools. When I lived in Christchurch in the early 1980s my friend Margaret Earle was Trade Aid’s first national education person.

Food producers need fair trade

Trade Aid’s education materials explain how coffee producers get squeezed into lowering their prices by international commodity trading. This is actually a problem for any producers of food that is sold as a commodity on world markets, when they don’t have government subsidies. This week New Zealand lamb was selling for $8.95 per kg in my local supermarket. This is an example of New Zealand sheep farmers being forced to lower their prices to an unsustainable level. I think the principles of fair trade should be applied to any food producers.

Trade Aid textiles

One of the highlights of a Trade Aid shop is the beautiful, traditionally made textiles.

Trade Aid as alternative economics

At one memorable AGM I heard Trade Aid CEO Geoff White talking about the way the business worked, importing products, paying the producers and selling in the local shops. As he described the financial arrangements, I was fascinated to learn that Trade Aid was using the tools and structures of international business very effectively, but with a social justice purpose. Instead of delivering profits for shareholders, the strategy of Trade Aid is to buy as much stock as possible from the trading partners at fair prices and with fair payment terms.

As a consumer I can choose to spend money at Trade Aid and know that this impacts on the lives of Trade Aid’s trading partners. Trade Aid isn’t a charity that asks for donations to provide services or help to people in need. I think it’s a much more empowering model. Besides, most Trade Aid products are useful and good quality and aren’t sold by other retailers in New Zealand.

How Trade Aid works

The Trade Aid organisation has a mixture of paid and volunteer staff. Every shop has a paid manager and often a deputy manager as well. There are paid staff (as well as volunteers) in the Christchurch head office and warehouse. Other roles in the organisation are filled by more than 700 volunteers throughout New Zealand. Each shop also has a Board of Trustees.

Where to find Trade Aid

In Hamilton, the Trade Aid shop is in Worley Place, central Hamilton, just across from the Hamilton City Council building. There are two other Trade Aid shops in the Waikato region, at Raglan and Te Awamutu, as well as shops throughout New Zealand. Some supermarkets and specialist groceries stock Trade Aid foods. You can also order goods online via the website. But I’d strongly recommend visiting one of the shops for the beautiful sensory experience.


Ground Change: The story of Trade Aid, by Sally Blundell (Craig Potton, 2013)