Earliest evidence of Oxfam’s involvement in fair trade found in Archive

Back in 1959, Pastor Ludwig Stumpf from the Hong Kong branch of the Lutheran World Federation, was invited by Oxfam to speak at their World Refugee Year conference. With him he brought a suitcase of handicrafts made by Chinese refugees. Although the suitcase containing dolls, tea cosies and slippers, amongst other items, didn’t capture the interest of Oxfam at that time, the list of contents did make it into the archives, and has recently been catalogued.

Letter with the list of sample handicrafts in package sent ahead ready for Rev. Stumpf’s arrival in the UK [DIR/2/3/4/48]

One conference attendee whose eye the handicrafts did catch was Elizabeth Wilson of the Huddersfield Famine Relief Committee (popularly known as ‘Hudfam’), which soon began importing crafts and selling them to the public as a new fundraising initiative. The venture was successful and Oxfam followed suit, creating Oxfam Activities Ltd in 1964. The company was set up to formalise Oxfam’s engagement in trading, with all profits from Oxfam Activities being ploughed back into Oxfam.

Poster advertising children’s books as part of the Helping by Selling Project [MS. Oxfam COM/1/8/353]

The buying and selling of goods imported from overseas was named the ‘Helping by Selling Project’. Helping by Selling mostly sold products that were made in workshops and training centres that Oxfam grants had helped to set up. However, while the project did serve to raise money for Oxfam’s relief and development work, it did not directly help the people who created the goods (beyond creating a market for the products).[1]

Oxfam felt that they could do more to help establish viable businesses, and further increase employment and improve the lives of those in need. They realised that simply selling goods made overseas did not guarantee an ongoing livelihood for communities.

The resolution was to cultivate a business partnership with craftspeople, and protect the vulnerability of poor producers who could be easily exploited. Therefore, in 1975, Oxfam’s fair trade scheme (Britain’s first ever) was created. The scheme was named Bridge, which ‘sums up very aptly the bridging link of trade and support between producers in developing countries and their customers in the UK and Ireland.’[2] Oxfam paid fair prices for the goods produced, as well as a dividend and the opportunity to apply for grants for improvements to workplaces. It also offered help with product development and marketing.

Poster advertising Oxfam’s Bridge project [MS. Oxfam COM/1/8/292]

In the early 2000s, Oxfam launched the Make Trade Fair campaign, advertisements for which featured celebrities such as Colin Firth and Bono being covered in coffee, sugar and other fair trade products. The memorable posters, which can be accessed in Digital Bodleian, highlighted how farmers overseas were being trapped in a poverty cycle by trade rules.

Poster of Colin Firth being showered with coffee highlighting the plight of poor farmers [MS. Oxfam COM/1/8/153/7]

Today, nearly 60 years after Oxfam’s first foray into fairly traded crafts, there is a huge variety of products on sale in the Sourced by Oxfam range from suppliers who practice fair trade in the UK and worldwide. These goods, which range from dog bowls to shampoo, are available in Oxfam shops and online and 100% of profits go to Oxfam’s work all over the world. With consumers more aware than ever about where their food and other goods come from, Fair Trade is now a household name.

Poster advertising the variety of fair trade products available [MS. Oxfam COM/1/8/151]

[1] M. Black,  A Cause for Our Times. Oxfam: the first 50 years (Oxford: Oxfam 1992) pp.166-167

[2] Rachel Wilshaw, ”Invisible Threads: Oxfam’s Bridge Programme.” Focus on Gender, vol. 2, no. 3, 1994, pp. 23–28. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4030240.

 

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