Today marks the start in the UK for Fair Trade Fortnight, but here's the problem… The fair trade movement has pioneered an approach to international trade which supports small-scale farmers rather than ruins them, but can only have a limited impact while it is organised by the pioneers.
But then, what happens now that the big business, the large corporations and massive multinationals are getting into fair trade too – doesn't that threaten the original goal of the movement?
That is certainly what many people think. But there are others who believe it is time that fair trade should do more than guarantee a living wage to workers and farmers – time, in other words, to go beyond the fair trade model.
They say that farms should be run by and ingredients grown on democratically run farmer co-ops. They argue that fair trade should be as much about building democracy as it is about supplying tea, coffee, or other such ingredients to the western consumer.
These are all issues I've struggled with now for decades. I have always looked for ways of doing business that were kinder and gentler, more thoughtful and more honourable. I have always supported the idea of bottom–up economic development, because it works.
But now I'm beginning to realise that there is a vital role for large organisations as well. Because big can also be fair.
Let's face it. There is nothing God-given about business. You don't find it in nature. It is simply about men and women who are trying to make things change. It doesn't have to be done one way rather than another, whatever the MBAs tell you.
But it does make things happen. Fair trade has changed the status of women in so many communities. Successful co-operatives now build schools and roads, provide clean water and support a huge grassroots movement, which is starting to be heard. And fair trade can change the brutish power of business too.
So now that we are on the threshold of moving fair trade out of a niche and into mainstream businesses, I am coming to believe that the real change may be to mainstream business, rather than the other way around.
We have lived through a period when economic values have taken over from every other human value. Yet human values are at the heart of fair trade – they have to be – and when big business finds itself involved, it will find that the basic values of fair trade challenges much that they hold dear.
Right in the heart of the fair trade they are beginning to organise – if it is to mean anything at all – is something that challenges the very language they use, and it certainly needs challenging.
You simply can't 'maximise profits' if you are spending thoughtful time working alongside the communities you are working with, when you are having to work out what they need, what is possible for them to supply and when.
So big business swallows fair trade. How can they also continue the 'race to the bottom', seeking out countries with no human or workers rights, whose economic model is slavery? How can they continue, through their acolytes in the media, to pour scorn on anyone who criticises trade without justice, equity, decency or compassion?
Fair trade is a Trojan horse for big business, which may lead to a bottoming out of the bottom line.
It forces them to submit to measurement according to indicators of a good and just society rather than just those of a prosperous and efficient one. It might mean a business community that asked 'why' as often as it asked 'when' or 'how much', and a culture that was concerned about the way something was done, as well as what that something was.
Of course, these things will not happen overnight or by magic, and there will be corporations which corrupt everything they touch. Impoverished communities need encouragement and support to develop local supply streams. We also need institutions capable of rigorously checking of the businesses, their claims and the produce they accept.
The point is that, by embarking on fair trade, business will have to be judged differently and organised differently, and that may be just as big a change as anything else they achieve.
So should big business be worried? If they are, I would suggest they just pause and ask themselves this question: 'What is the right moral thing for us to do?'
You might find that, just by asking the question, they have already become better and more human.