• Cynthia Cheong

Reflections on the First Fair Trade Faith Conference

Cynthia Cheong of My Fair Baby reflects on the teaching at the first Fair Trade faith Conference, held in Queanbeyan earlier this year.

The Fair Trade Faith Conference commenced on Friday 27th April 2018 in beautiful Queanbeyan, a heritage city which will be 180 years old this year. Hosted by the Queanbeyan Uniting Church, the vision for the conference is for ‘the whole of creation reconciled and renewed.’ Delegates came with hopes to learn more about fair trade and how it connects with our faith, to meet and share with others.

Having flown in from Melbourne, I initially weighed the cost of coming to this conference, not knowing what to expect as it was the first of its kind in Australia. But after the 2.5 days of thought-provoking talks, meeting faith-inspired people and learning about the similar challenges others have faced on advocacy in church circles, I came away thinking the cost of NOT coming was far greater. I would have missed the opportunity to connect with passionate individuals and learn from seriously great speakers.

Rev John Martin opened with a reading from Exodus 3 where God heard the groaning of the Israelites enslaved by the Egyptians. Today’s ‘Egyptians’ come in different guises, be it the unpredictable financial system, trading in countries where power is imbalance, greedy consumers and big bad corporates. Profits for a few, misery for the rest. As people of faith, Rev John encouraged us to think, act and pray to do something to change such injustices in our world. One of the key ways is to rescue people by giving them a fair go through fair trade.

Afterwards, we were treated with a dynamic panel who explored ‘What do we mean by Fair Trade and Ethical Shopping?’. Moderated by Robert Martin, talk show host of ‘Bigger Questions’ on Light FM, the panel consisted of fair trade and social justice advocates; Grant Murray (co-founder of Tribes & Nations), Molly Harriss Olson (CEO, Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand), James Dunlop (Senior Campaign Manager, Oxfam Australia), and Toni Hassan (Director, STOP THE TRAFFIK).

The panel had a lively discussion around measurable impacts through fair trade and accessibility to buy fair trade products. One of the key learnings was that consumers have the power if they are well informed. In the UK, when Sainsbury announced that it would launch its own ‘Fairly Traded’ scheme for tea and drop the Fairtrade labelled teas, the consumers took to the streets and social media to publicly protest this move. The issue with self-labelling is that big corporates like Sainsbury turn the power of negotiation back to themselves rather than for the benefit of producer groups. It was acknowledged that we still have a long way to go in Australia to educate consumers about fair trade. The understanding and appreciation of the fair trade positive impacts are not as far reaching as those in the UK.

The keynote speaker, Dr Jonathan Cornford was an absolute delight to hear as he presented a two part series of ‘The Gospel and Fair Trade’. He talked about the idea of fair trade which arose from the Christian faith. His presentation of the biblical principles of Shalom and how God is interested in our whole of life, our spiritual and material as well as economic consumption are intertwined. We are called to practice justice and righteousness which includes being good neighbours not just locally but globally too. International trade is part of our every day lives. When we wake up and brew the coffee, those aromatic beans are sourced overseas. Our act of consumption should reflect our spiritual beliefs. Caring for the other who produces. Fair trade is a necessity of the out working of our biblical faith. Dr Cornford gleaned from Acts 2 about the early church and how they created an alternative economy by sharing everything which became so attractive, their way of living was so potent that it became a catalyst to the Roman empire conversion.

Please subscribe to Dr Cornford’s writings on Mannagum and purchase his book ‘Coming back to Earth’. There were more gems he uncovered at the conference, I would encourage a further reading of his well written articles.

The Noelene Martin Fair Trade Memorial Lecture was held on Day 2 in rememberance of her tireless advocacy of fair trade for over 30 years. The lecture was given by world class speaker Dr Keith Suter, global futurist and media commentator in national and foreign affairs. Within the hour, Dr Suter covered so much ground by giving us a tour of the Christian tradition of shaping economics, how the Constantinian era grew Christianity, the decline in the last few hundred years due to conflict, changes in technology, government intervention and many more challenges. Dr Suter encouraged attendees in the need for Christians to reconnect economics and morality again. The role of fair trade can be the solution to the growing sense of disparity between and within nations. Dr Suter ended the lecture by reminding attendees that Christianity is a message of love and self-sacrifice. As John Wesley challenges us ‘gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.’ Dr Suter reminded us that Christianity calls us to do better, just as Noelene Martin did.

On the final day of the conference, we gathered with the local congregation to worship God. Scott Higgins, the instigator for the creation of Baptist World Aid report, spoke about ‘What does the Lord require of us?’ using Micah 6:8. He shared his story of discovering the atrocities of what a $5 t-shirt costed. His personal faith was always about telling about Jesus that he forgot to be Jesus. Scott made it his passion to uncover what biblical justice has to say on the vulnerable, the exploited, the oppressed and the downtrodden. He encouraged us to use our voice to speak up for the voiceless, advocate for justice through fairer trade to irresponsible companies and keep favouring companies who do the right thing.

There was also time to connect with other fair traders and advocates. Business owners like myself and advocates had the opportunity to share our fair trade stories. It was humbling for me to hear of the challenges our fair traders faced but through it all, they stood their ground and continued the good work of enriching consumers with their product offerings. My favourite story was from Kokonut Pacific’s founder, Dr Dan Etherington who worked tirelessly to solve the copra problem, a back-breaking way of producing low quality coconut oil. Copra farming was a form of slavery. Dr Etherington eventually invented the ‘Direct Micro Expelling’ (DME) method to extract pure virgin coconut oil which he shared with the farmers of Solomon Islands for free. The technology helped grow the economy and villagers are benefiting from this invention and are exporting virgin coconut oil worldwide. Watch the ABC’s Landline coverage of this remarkable story of one compassionate Economist. Kokonut Pacific now sells Solomon Islands supplied virgin coconut oil and products under the brand Niulife Coconut.

The overall hospitality shown by the Queanbeyan Uniting Church led by Ps Amy Junor and her team of volunteers was outstanding. The food catered for the entire conference by Corinne and Brian Nash was a culinary delight.

I left the conference so inspired and motivated to do more for fair trade and to say more about why social and economic justice through fair trade will change our world for the better. Attending this conference was akin to being invited to a grand feast with such good food you never knew even existed.

I look forward to the next Fair Trade Faith Conference which is planned for 2019.

#fairtradefaithconference #cyntiacheong #myfairbaby #fairtrade #queanbeyanconference #JonathanCornford #KeithSuter #RobertMartin #JohnMartin #MollyHarrissOlsen #Oxfam #StoptheTraffik

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