Q. How did you get involved in the fair trade and cooperative movements?It was when I was studying economics in Salzburg, Austria that I had the first contact with the fair trade and cooperative movements, through a consumer cooperative selling fair trade products. I brought this concept back to my home town Bolzano, Italy in 1985 and started the first fair trade shop in the country as an association of three people. In 1986, the association transformed into a cooperative.
I got even more convinced about the role of cooperatives in improving small and marginalized producers’ livelihoods when I visited a women jute producer cooperative in Bangladesh in 1986. In 1988 I founded Altromercato, a worker cooperative to promote fair trade and ethical consumption in Italy.
Q. What is Altromercato?Altromercato is now a consortium of 109 members (consumer cooperatives, non-profit organizations, etc.) and 260 Altromercato Botteghe del Mondo (Fair Trade) shops which trade and sell products from 170 partner producer organizations from 42 countries. It is associated with WFTO, Equo Garantito – the Italian Association of Fair Trade – and the European Fair Trade Association (EFTA) . In addition to Fair Trade shops, Altromercato’s sales channels also include around 1,500 supermarkets, one online shop, numerous organic products wholesalers and distributors, and school canteens. The turnover for the fiscal year 2015/2016 was €52,820,488. Our mission is to:
- Offer marginalized producers the opportunity to access markets with innovative, environmentally friendly, economically sustainable and efficient solutions;
- Spread fair trade principles and products; and
- Foster social change to promote better and wider fair trade rules and practices.
We started the cooperative with only €3,000 capital. To raise funds, we set up a financial cooperative in 1990 which allowed us to get loans with the interest rate almost half of the official one. This helped the quick growth of Altromercato in the 1990s.
Q. How have you been engaged in the fair trade standards and certification system?I have been involved in the development of fair trade guarantee and certification system since late 1990s. At WFTO, our Standard comprises a set of compliance criteria based on the 10 Fair Trade Principles and the relevant ILO standards. Compliance with our Standard will be assessed by various means including a self-assessment report, peer-visit, and third party monitoring audit. It verifies that an entire enterprise and its supply chain management systems have embraced fair trade. Until recently, the members could use the WFTO label only on their websites or publications, but responding to the requests from members, we developed a new WFTO Guarantee System to back up a product label, which took more than 10 years to be finally presented and approved at the Annual General Meeting, Rio de Janeiro in 2013.
Q. What are your thoughts on the fair trade and cooperative movements?The main role of fair trade organizations is in supporting small and marginalized producers by building up long-term trading partnerships, based on dialogue, transparency and respect. Also awareness-raising among consumers remains an important issue.
On cooperatives, democratic member control is at the core of its values and principles but I have seen sometimes it can also present a challenge in making decisions in a timely manner. There are many successful cooperatives around the world irrespective of their sizes. I believe that the success of a cooperative depends on the people and members within. Such cooperatives have social values behind, so they should differentiate themselves from other competitors by promoting these values.
For both movements, it is important to attract people, especially young people by showing them the social values. In Bolzano I coordinate “Fair Cooking”, a joint project of the Michelin-star restaurants and fair trade shops in the region that promotes the philosophy and quality of fair trade products and increases respect towards fair trade producers. By working with interested partners on innovative initiatives, we have been able to get rid of the dust covering these movements.
Spotlight Interviews with Cooperators is a series of interviews with cooperative leaders from around the world with whom ILO officials have crossed paths during the course of their work with cooperatives. The article does not constitute an endorsement by the International Labour Office.