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Erinch Sahan: enterprising fairness

Oxford Brookes is a long-standing champion of Fair Trade and in 2019 awarded Erinch Sahan, CEO of the World Fair Trade Organization, an honorary doctorate. Erinch spoke to Observe about sustainable ways of doing business that give economically marginalised and exploited people better livelihoods.

The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) is a global network of 405 Fair Trade enterprises. Its members range in size and are spread across 76 countries, but are united in having a social mission at the heart of their enterprise.

The WFTO’s impact on people’s lives is considerable, as Erinch explains. “When we calculated the number of livelihoods impacted by our members, there were nearly a million people – most of whom would be much worse off if they weren’t associated with a Fair Trade enterprise. That’s a phenomenal level of impact from 400 plus members.”

Creative Handicraft are supporting people who would otherwise not have any opportunities in life

One of those members is Creative Handicraft. They are co-owned by over 200 women workers and make ‘slow’ fashion in their garment factory in Mumbai, India. Their business model is an alternative to the ‘fast’ fashion that is prevalent in the industry and which is associated with poor working conditions and environmental damage.

“What makes Creative Handicraft different is that they exist to benefit the producers. They hire economically marginalised women and train them for a year, incurring all the costs that come with that. So they are supporting people who would otherwise not have any opportunities in life.

“They’re going from strength to strength as a business and exporting around the world, including to mainstream department stores such as Monoprix in France. So their model is both socially desirable and commercially viable.”

Why should unsustainable products be cheaper and rewarded with higher profits?

WFTO’s largest member is USA-based Dr Bronners, makers of organic soap and bodycare products. They are a multi-million dollar company who re-invest half their profit supporting small-scale farmers and artisan groups.

And it’s not just manufacturers who are members. German wholesalers El Puente are co- owned by producers, the network of fair trade shops who sell their products, and by their own workers – a system that ensures everyone in the supply chain is paid a fair price for their work.

All WFTO members measure their success against a social mission rather than by the size of their profits. This approach, however, is rare in a global marketplace where fairness and sustainability are often seen as unprofitable side issues rather than being at the heart of companies’ missions. And although Fair Trade is growing, Erinch sees it more as a proof-of-concept for a better way of doing business than an end in itself.

“Why should unsustainable products be cheaper and rewarded with higher profits? It should be the other way round. Consumers are choosing Fair Trade but it’s not enough. There needs to be a broader economic system evolution.”

If business schools start getting behind a vision of a transformed business world then we really can change the bigger landscape

Erinch taught Environmentally Sustainable Business and Business in Society modules at Oxford Brookes in 2017, and he believes that business schools have a key role to play in this evolution. But he does not think they are doing enough.

“There is good work going on at Brookes and others, but by and large, business schools are set up to create graduates who will run businesses to maximise profits.

“What would the business world look like in an economy that works for the good of people and planet?  I wouldn’t underestimate the effect of business schools’ research nor their public engagement work. They have a lot of legitimacy and credibility, and if they start getting behind a vision of a transformed business world then we really can change the bigger landscape.”

I’m an optimist and believe the model we have developed is really going to take off

Erinch also believes that small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have an important role to play and has a message for the entrepreneurs that Oxford Brookes is so good at producing.

“Making an SME work and thrive is an important activity. There’s a natural embodiment of your community’s interests in your business. And if you can turn it into a mission-led enterprise, become a WFTO member!”

Any business that does so will be joining a wider movement which Erinch is confident can transform the future.

“Right now we’re a very small part of the global economy. Most of the business world is about profit not a social mission. But I’m an optimist and believe the model we have developed is really going to take off, along with co-operatives, employee ownership and other fair and sustainable business models.”

Photography: Paul Tait
Words: Sirius Gibson

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