Acting
local

 
Anita Roddick
says that true free trade can only come through a process of localization

It has been more than a decade since The Body Shop set up its first community trade contract. For me, it was one of the most important things we did.

The link was with 30 producers of handmade paper from a village in the Kathmandu Valley. Using local sustainable materials, they revived a traditional craft dating back to the 11th century.

Papermaking in Nepal had declined when the Government restricted cutting lokta, traditionally the main source of paper fibre. Too many lokta shrubs had been stripped and killed, leaving the soil of the hillsides vulnerable to heavy rains. We employed a visionary consultant to research alternative sources, finally deciding on cotton rag waste.

Our first range of handmade Nepalese paper was sold through The Body Shop branches during Christmas 1989. A year later, one of our designers visited General Paper Industries in Nepal and spent a week working up new designs with the producers. We gave this kind of technical assistance to our trading partners wherever we could. It both produced fine quality products for The Body Shop, and enabled producers to use their own culture and ideas to experiment with new ones – not just for us but also for other like-minded organizations.

Health, education and income
The success led to remarkable local community work. The producers invested some of their earnings in health care, education and alternative income generation projects. In 1993, 90 young girls were awarded scholarships.

Community trade demands a great deal of time, a lot of devotion and commitment, and a determination to make every relationship succeed, no matter what the difficulties. So perhaps it is not surprising that few other retailers have tried it. But, with more than 2,000 stores around the world, The Body Shop had massive purchasing power, and we wanted our trade to make a double difference – not just economically, but through investing in communities.

We built trading relationships with poor communities – from Glasgow to India, Africa and the Americas – with the express purpose of raising, not lowering, the quality of their lives. These initiatives, by themselves, will not transform the global economy – but they did transform the company’s thinking about its responsibilities. The Body Shop was behaving not just as a retailer, but as a non-governmental organization – in partnership with other NGOs – using the leverage of a contract to improve the lives of those involved.

We were not the only retailer ever to work like this, in equal partnership with local people – to refrain from squeezing returns to them as low as possible – but we were pretty rare.

We were providing livelihoods, and I was immensely proud of what we managed to do. But the communities remained dependent on us. If The Body Shop share price had dipped too far, or our customers had taken against the products, their income stream would have been in serious danger.

So community trade is not enough. It certainly is not, in itself, a solution to the problems of globalization: nor, indeed, is trade itself. We also need to give people security so that they can provide for their own local needs.

Communities increasingly depend on trading in the world market. That in turn depends on the vagaries of London and Wall Street, and on the vast $2 trillion speculative flows that pass through the system every day.

The debt burden
In heavily indebted developing countries, communities are often forced to grow cash crops, like coffee or tobacco, to pay off creditors for previous regimes – rather than what they require to satisfy their own needs.

Even in the United Kingdom, supermarkets stock food from thousands of miles away – trucked to Italy and back for packaging – when the same apples or lamb are available in farms down the road. That has implications for global warming and for the health of people who miss out on fresh food grown locally. It also has implications for the economic future of rural Britain, where people are priced off their own land, and threaten to abandon farming.

Agreements like those on tariffs and trade (GATTS) threaten to force the communities of the world even further into pathetic dependence on the crumbs from powerful multinationals by opening up water, health and education to competition from them.
Localization means making people less dependent by helping them put their skills and resources to use
It may have seemed strange that I advocated localization, while building up an international retail business with outlets in 49 countries. But I do not believe there is any contradiction between localization and trade. When the 19th century advocates of free trade first wove together their political beliefs, they envisaged the crucial right of free people to do business with each other on an equal basis. Free trade to Cobden and Bright meant the very opposite of slavery.

But over the past generation their rallying cry has been perverted into something very different. For them, free trade never meant the right of the rich and prodigiously powerful to ride roughshod over the poorest and powerless. It never meant imprisoning Indian farmers for infringing the patents of the corporations who own the genetically modified seeds carried on the winds. Or charging for water in the Philippines, so that a foreign military base gets an unlimited supply while the local villagers can barely afford any. And it certainly never meant opening up the poorest communities in the world to competition for their schooling and health services from giant rich world companies. That is not free trade. It is compulsory trade.

Starting at home
So what can we in developed countries do? We can encourage the resurgence of interest in localization in our own backyards – the farmers’ markets, the painstakingly won exceptions from European Union trade rules that seem to outlaw local purchasing by local authorities. We can buy fresh food locally.

We can make sure that school dinners, hospital meals, council supplies, are grown and produced locally. We can look at product labels and purchase accordingly.

And we can extend the right to produce a diversity of local foods to the developing world – because world trade regulations tend to be enforced more rigorously on the poor than on the rich.

Most of all, we can shift the weight of regulation and subsidy that demands that the communities of the world trade with each other – whether they have the means to do so or not. We can turn back the processes that are undermining their ability to meet their own needs by forcing them to contract out, to trade, to swap tried and tested diversity for monoculture and the desperate search for customers.

This insidious process undermines the legitimacy and equality of trade. It makes it an instrument of slavery rather than an instrument of betterment. And it is reminiscent of a puritanical horror of peoples and communities who do not need to work as hard as our masters feel they should.

Misused ‘efficiency’
A generation ago, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins described how primitive societies still enjoyed relative plenty – satisfying all their material needs by working between three and five hours a day. That kind of independence has always horrified the people who run the world.

Their determination to undermine it is justified by the pursuit of ‘efficiency’. Yet a narrow version of this much misused idea – simple money – is being used to visit a terrible inefficiency on the world. People, countryside, skills are allowed to moulder away, while we truck in food for those who can afford it from the other side of the globe.

This may be many things. It is certainly not efficient. Yet the current ideology blinds us to the terrible waste of God-given resources all around us.

Localization means making people less dependent by helping them put their skills and resources to use. We have a long way to go to make that possible, but it is worth the attempt


Anita Roddick OBE is Founder of The Body Shop.

PHOTOGRAPH: Lee Kim Shi/UNEP/Topham


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Looking through new lenses | Development with a human face | Trade can transform | Achieving win–win–win | People | Promises to keep | As precious as gold | Expanding the circle | At a glance: Globalization, poverty, trade and the environment | Acting local | Cooperation is catching | Books & products | Getting through the bottleneck | Investing in the environment | Bishkek Mountain Platform | You can’t breathe money | We will succeed | Fair trade? Fair question

 

Complementary articles in other issues:
Anita Roddick: Multi-local business (Beyond 2000) 2000
Issue on Poverty, Health and the Environment, 2001
Issue on Production and Consumption, 1996
Issue on World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2002
Issue on Global Environment Facility, 2002


AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and natural resources
Population and Land Use