By Kevin Boon


This year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) theme was ‘Choose to Challenge.’ We joined an IWD conversation on how Fair Trade is challenging the current system and empowering women.

REAL Founder, Safia Minney and Roopa Mehta, World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) President and CEO of SASHA, a Kolkatta-based Fair Trade organisation talked about why the issues of women’s rights and parity is so urgently needed in business and international trade.


Roopa talked about the women who have inspired her from her strong, independent, compassionate mother to her sisters and empowering female bosses early in her career. She also talked about Safia being an inspiration as well as women community leaders. Safia referenced her early days in publishing and what she had gained in terms of the importance of being supported in by her female boss. In her words: “it makes such a difference as a young woman to be believed in.” Women helping women is key. We need to recognise prejudice and understand power structures, the abuse of power and control of women by the dominant culture and how it is keeping women down. The Fair Trade movement goes a long way to addressing this in its Fair Trade principles.  Reflecting this at the grassroots reality into a trading system and a different way of arranging policy and economics is an ongoing challenge. Women need to believe in each other. Safia talked about the inspiration of women leaders who have courage in their convictions and challenging the system such as Anita Roddick, Naomi Klein and Caroline Lucas.

Safia asked Roopa how she’s managed to reach out and make a difference to the women in Fair Trade groups. Roopa mentioned the importance of women leaders emerging from the community and having an ecosystem which enables and empowers women. She also talked about how women give back to their community resulting in a growing cycle eventually leading to a cultural shift. This has had significant impacts, for example in helping women manage their finances and deal with domestic violence.  The WFTO is challenging the status quo; 50% of Fair Trade member company CEOs are women compared to the industry average of 8%. In terms of senior managers, 54% have women in these roles compared to 24% in industry and 51% have women on their boards compared to 12% in industry.

Roopa Mehta (left) and Safia Minney


Roopa asked Safia what she learned from interviewing women for her book Slave to Fashion. Safia talked about the challenge facing an industry where, even within conventional supply chains, there is modern-day slavery affecting an estimated 40 million people. She referred to it as a “left-over from colonialism” and symptom of a dysfunctional economic system without transparency or accountability. Safia talked about the girls she interviewed as young as 11 having to work in cotton mills and garment factories sometimes earning little more than their keep in the Sumangali system and in Bangladeshi factories earning USD 70 a month. The WFTO, with its 10 Fair Trade principles, has demonstrated how business and trading systems can be ethical and sustainable. It also calls for laws to be enforced as relevant legislation tends to be overlooked by governments. The current economic system holds women back and needs to be overhauled for gender parity and solutions to the climate, ecological and social crises to be found.

Safia referred to the increasing value, as reported by Forbes, being placed by large corporations on the soft skills and holistic systems thinking which brings resilience and that closely align as feminine attributes. She asked Roopa whether this trend can be seen in India. Roopa’s response was that certain conscious companies are starting to recognise this and the benefits it can have in many areas including productivity and company culture. Safia reflected on research by Korn Ferry which shows that, based on data from 55,000 participants in 90 countries, women are 86% more likely to behave with emotional intelligence beneficial to work-place productivity. Women outperform men in 11 out of 12 emotional and social intelligence categories. Female perspectives lead to effective workplace behavior. Yet women self-evaluate as less competent, and men overrate their abilities. Binary education/dominant culture learning teaches women to undervalue themselves. Safia stressed the importance of creating a different educational framework something in which the WFTO is involved.


Safia asked Roopa how people in the audience could support and empower economically-marginalised women who are on the frontline of the ecological, climate and social crises. Roopa believes there are many ways people can help from the goods they purchase to raising awareness and the stories they tell. There are many shared issues between nations such as gender roles, men’s sense of entitlement and feeling uncomfortable about women in senior roles. These issues can create connection between women across borders. She questioned whether it was nature or nurture that lay behind gender roles and, for example, women’s tendency to be accommodating. Safia talked about how the just transition and building back better “really is about building the kind of collaboration, the creative, the innovative approach that is a skill set that women have in abundance”. This will also be liberating to men in certain ways as we move from a model which is aggressive and toxic.