An international conference of “fair-trade towns” opened with preliminary events Friday in the city of Kumamoto — the first time the gathering has been held outside Europe — as campaigners look to nurture the ethical consumption movement in Asia.

“This is an opportunity for us to discuss how to bridge the North-South divide, protect the environment and how diverse the fair trade movement has become recently,” said Shoko Akashi, head of the conference’s steering committee.

Fair trade, which campaigners say started about 50 years ago in Europe as alternative trade, is designed to support producers of coffee, cocoa for chocolate, bananas, handicrafts and other primary items in developing countries by paying a fair price and promoting their collective and sustainable development.

Nearly 500 participants and volunteers from 20 countries have gathered for the annual International Fair Trade Towns Conference this weekend, according to the organizer.

Kumamoto became Asia’s first and only fair-trade town in 2011.

To date, 1,444 localities in 24 countries have received the designation as part of the movement that began in Garstang, England, which was declared the first-ever fair-trade town in 2000.

“The expectation is very high for Kumamoto to spread the movement in Asia,” Akashi said. “We hope everyone will get in touch with fair trade and take the opportunity to send a message of fair trade to Asia and the world.”

Aside from the formal conference, producers from 12 developing countries are displaying fair-trade products, managers of eco-friendly companies are holding their own meeting and students are organizing a forum, she said.

Kumamoto is “setting an example not only for Kumamoto people but for the nation of Japan and the whole of Asia and indeed for the whole of the world whose eyes are looking upon (the) city,” said Bruce Crowther, founder of the International Fair Trade Towns Movement, from Garstang.

“The reason we picked Kumamoto was partly because of the proposal but also because we felt it . . . very important to stimulate what’s happening here in East Asia,” including Taiwan and South Korea, he said in an interview in Tokyo before the event.

Among those participating are campaigners from South Korea, Hong Kong and the Philippines. On Friday, representatives of producer groups from Bhutan, Laos, Myanmar and other countries gave presentations about their products and activities.

Fair trade has grown from a niche market to boast estimated retail sales of around $7 billion worldwide, largely since Fairtrade International launched an international consumer labeling system in 2002. This paved the way for corporate licensees to be involved.

Major supermarket chain Aeon Co., which joined the system in 2004, said Friday it has become the first Asian company to take part in the FI’s new Fair Trade Sourcing Programs, designed to boost procurement by relaxing some regulations.

“What we’d love to see as a result of this important conference is that more companies are inspired to follow Aeon, and get in and support fair-trade supply chains to help us build more products in the region,” said Molly Harriss Olson, who was chairwoman of the FI until February.

Citing the examples of Switzerland and Britain, she said, “Fair trade has become a global brand.” In Switzerland, 55 percent of bananas sold now have the “Fairtrade Mark,” while 96 percent of consumers in Britain recognize it.

The concept is less known in Japan, however, where only 22 percent of people surveyed recognized the label — the lowest level among 17 countries in a 2013 study. Retail sales of labeled products here were estimated at ¥7.29 billion in 2012, up 17.4 percent from the previous year, but they still represent only about 1 percent of the world total.

“The Japanese market has been growing steadily in fair trade but slower than we would have imagined,” Harriss Olson said in an interview. “This market could be huge for fair trade” and that the fair trade towns movement “is one of the most effective ways” to that end.

Following in the footsteps of Kumamoto, a campaign network in Nagoya is trying to have their city recognized this year.

In South Korea, Seoul and Incheon are trying to achieve fair-trade town status, said Kang Baek-lee from the Korea Council of Fair Trade Organizations. Beyond consumer countries, Pocos de Caldas in Brazil became the first fair-trade town in a producer country in 2012.

While the global movement is led by Britain, which has the largest fair-trade market and 572 fair-trade towns, Crowther recalled that when he started his activity in 1992 in his hometown of 5,000 people, the first meeting he held had only three participants — himself, his wife and their baby sitter.

“It never ceases to amaze me, coming to events like this and hearing how fair-trade towns have developed in different countries. . . . It’s incredibly inspiring,” he said.

“One thing that unites us all is the fact that we want to see a better world, we want to end poverty, we want to see fair trade more and we want to see trade justice,” he said. “Fair-trade towns are the chance to bring people together at all levels . . . locally, but nationally and internationally as well.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.