How the Fair trade movement is picking up steam in Hong Kong

Thanks to the efforts of dedicated advocates, the fair trade movement is finally picking up steam in the city, writes Bernice Chan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 9:50am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 9:50am

Anthony Chiu Sin-wing has big ambitions for 2017, and they involve not the election of the next chief executive but having Hong Kong designated as a fair trade city.

It has already met three of five criteria; there's a choice of free trade products readily available from retailers, items are used at workplaces and community organisations, including schools, and the subject attracts popular support and media coverage.

The remaining conditions are to set up a steering panel to ensure continued commitment, and persuading the Legislative Council to adopt a resolution supporting the cause. The latter may prove to be a hurdle, but Chiu is hopeful. "We have the chief executive election that year so it may not be so easy to do this, but it's reachable."

Chiu is the founder of Fair Circle, a social enterprise that sells fair trade products and educates people about the concept: helping marginalised communities in poor countries by eliminating middlemen and paying them a fair price for their products, typically agricultural produce or handicrafts.

Anti-poverty charity Oxfam introduced the movement to Hong Kong in 2002 and a number of the fair trade groups have since sprung up, including the Fair Trade Hong Kong Foundation, which is authorised to monitor the certification of fair trade items in Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland.

Although Fair Circle started more than 10 years ago, it only began gaining momentum in the past two years. Chiu estimates the venture drew up to 50,000 customers in the past eight years, half of them over the past year. Combined with other fair trade groups, he believes well over 100,000 people bought at least one fair trade product last year - about 1.3 per cent of the population.

But while people are more accepting of the idea of fair trade, Chiu says the groups must now mobilise consumers to get to the next stage of actually practising it.

A former technology consultant, Chiu was influenced by friends working in NGOs and eventually quit his job to set up Fair Circle to help people in developing nations make a decent living.

He believes two issues hindered the fair trade movement from reaching critical mass in Hong Kong in the past.

First, there was a limited range of items that consumers could buy on a regular basis. Previously, the main fair trade products available were chocolate, coffee, tea and wine. Now there are cookies, breakfast cereals and fruit bars, grooming products such as essential oils and soaps, as well as handmade bags and scarves.

As the international movement marks tomorrow as World Fair Trade Day, some might be heartened that there are now more than 260 products on the local market, compared to only about 25 in 2005. Fair trade clothing and foods are available at Marks & Spencer outlets here, and major local supermarket chains and convenience stores now carry fair trade coffee and sugar. However, such stock is marginal to their business. Specialised distributors such as Crossroads International and Fair Circle tend to be found in less convenient locations in Tuen Mun and Jordan.

Second, Chiu finds Hongkongers have yet to take to heart the issue of workers and farmers getting a fair share of the fruits of their labour.

"When there's a natural disaster, locals are touched and want to donate money. It's not difficult," he says. "They think money will solve matters in fair trade too, but supporting the movement requires long-term commitment."

Still, he is cheered that more young people are taking up the issue. At Polytechnic University, students organise an annual fair trade week to highlight the issue and sales of fair items this year have brought in revenue of more than HK$7,000, nearly double last year's figure.

"Young people feel society is unjust and that triggers an emotional issue for them," says Alex Chan Wo-shun, a public policy senior lecturer at PolyU. "They love the idea [of fair trade] because they see the issue [of inequality] flattened. They sympathise with the farmers because they share problems [of growing income disparity]."

At Fair Taste, a distributor of food and beverage products, co-founder Leung Pui-fung has also seen demand grow in the past few years, allowing them to record a small profit in 2012-13.

"We're starting to see people change their consumer behaviour. Maybe it's empathy because they don't want the farmers to be exploited," says Leung, a former Oxfam staffer.

Fair Taste's most successful deal has been to persuade the Café de Coral group to sell fair trade wines through its Spaghetti House restaurants.

Leung was fortunate to find an ally in Christine Hung Chi-yin, the fast-food chain's director of strategic branding. Already an occasional fair trade consumer, Hung wondered how she could incorporate the items into the company's corporate social responsibility programme.

"Profit margins in the fast-food industry are very small so we had to do this carefully, which meant a lot of logistics and cost issues to tackle," says Hung. "In the beginning, many staff were not aware of what fair trade was or didn't know how it was fair to farmers or what people in Hong Kong could do, so we had to educate them."

After plenty of number crunching and working out the logistics, South African fair trade wines were added to the Spaghetti House menus last June. Priced at HK$49 a glass and HK$128 a bottle, it was about the same price as the Italian table wine used at the restaurant chain.

Customers were intrigued to try the new offering since the prices were the same. Though the group had smaller profit margins, Leung says vendors tell her that they are seeing a slow increase in numbers of bottles sold.

"It's a sign of support for fair trade and it's a win-win situation," she says.

Last October Café de Coral outlets also started offering fair trade fruit tea from Sri Lanka as a choice with its set lunch or dinner for no extra cost.

"We have a huge customer base of 2.5 million customers a week. Not everyone orders a cup of fair trade tea, but for the movement it's an important step to reach people who don't know what fair trade is. For example, housewives can try it and if they do, they will spread it by word of mouth," Hung says.

She hadn't thought that a major fast-food chain such as Café de Coral would buy into the programme, and has been encouraged by the results so far.

"It required a lot of work in the back end, changing the computer system and logistics because we were adding another beverage option into the ordering system," Hung says. "It takes time to change so I'm grateful to the company for doing this and I hope more businesses will follow."

Fair trade promoters such as Leung try to visit suppliers at one destination each year to see how they fare. In Darjeeling, for example, the co-operative which supplies some of her tea has used the profits to buy solar panels for their remote mountain community and to purchase a vehicle to transport patients to the nearest clinic in emergencies.

For its part, the Fair Trade Hong Kong Foundation has been actively promoting greater awareness, education and engagement. Executive secretary Daphne Ip Tsz-ying says the organisation gives talks to students, recruits them to be ambassadors, and convinces corporations to stock their pantries with fair trade products.

The foundation has become busier since it became affiliated with Fairtrade International two years ago as it takes on local inquiries.

"Previously, anyone who had questions had to send them to the head office in Germany," says Ip. "But we can help explain how to set up a fair trade shop or how to source products in Chinese and English. In the past six months we've had a lot of queries and had to hire more staff."

Chan, who is on the foundation's school committee, says fair trade has a history of only about 10 years in the city but believes the momentum will become noticeable over the next decade.

"We have to push on several fronts. On the corporate level we need to meet with decision makers and show that getting involved will benefit the company's image. And then we also need to continue educating the public. More of them know about fair trade but want more information about how exactly the farmers benefit, how the mechanism works and the gains," he says.

While he also cites accessibility as a hurdle for the fair trade sector, Chan says people can now order products online and have them delivered by post. "It's a new concept for local people and so far it's growing slowly."

Chan believes legislative councilors are too occupied with pressing issues to give much priority to fair trade designation, but says it is more practical to focus on securing commitments at the community level.

"I think we will have a better chance at getting district councils like Wan Chai to support fair trade. Wan Chai is more cosmopolitan and has a significant number of middle class, and Central and Tsim Sha Tsui, too. We have to try."

Fair Trade Hong Kong has launched a fair and exhibition to promote the cause. For details, go to