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Japan’s Fair-Trade Towns: Applying Fair-Trade Principles at the Societal Level

Party to celebrate the forming of Fair-Trade Town Nagoya. | Image credit: Eiji Wada

The international Fair-Trade Town movement encourages authorities, corporates, retail outlets and community groups to promote fair trade and spread understanding of fair-trade concepts across its sphere of influence. Over 1,800 towns have been recognized worldwide. Japan may well lag other countries in the movement, but it does have three registered fair-trade cities — Kumamoto, Nagoya and Zushi — and has added its own, sixth requirement to the five core standards for fair-trade town status outlined by Fair Trade Towns International.

That sixth standard focuses on contributing to the revitalization of local communities. The Japanese movement is also focused on building a fair society and economy inside the nation as more local communities grapple with increasing poverty and widening income differentials. Candidates seeking fair-trade town status in Japan must prove its regional manufacturers, stores and industries are actively trying to invigorate regional economies and societies; and foster local ties by combining commercial activities with community-based activities, such as promoting local production for local consumption, town development and environmental activities, or supporting disabled residents.

Satomi Harada, director of the nonprofit Fair Trade Nagoya Network (FTNN) believes, “The shift of production bases overseas and the influx of cheap imports are eroding Japan’s ability to manufacture products. In the past, we haven’t accurately recognized or provided fair compensation for Japan’s superior technology and products. It is important to provide support to developing countries, but we also need to tackle important problems on our doorstep. The Fair-Trade Town Movement represents Japan’s efforts to promote fair trade as a means of deepening community ties and creating prosperous local economies.”

Nagoya’s Fair-Trade Town initiatives

With a population of approximately 2.3 million, Harada’s hometown of Nagoya is Japan’s third-largest city after Tokyo and Osaka, with a long industrial history as the hub of Japanese manufacturing. However, after hosting the COP10 Convention on Biological Diversity in 2010, and the UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in 2014, local citizens began debating global environmental issues and social problems. Nagoya became the second Japanese city to apply for Fair-Trade Town status in 2015, and earned Fair-trade Town status that year.

Some cities lose momentum after receiving Fair-Trade Town recognition but, according to Ms. Harada, Nagoya went from strength to strength, involving local government and large corporations in fair-trade activities.

“We cooperated with education institutions, for instance, starting with the use of fair-trade sesame seed products in school lunches. Children not only learned the story behind the foodstuff in the classroom but actually got to taste it for themselves to deepen the experience. Persuading local supermarkets to stock the sesame seed product at the same time as it featured in the school lunches was a great idea because it extended the children’s learning experience beyond the classroom to the home and local area.”

Fair trade is also permeating parts of Nagoya’s best-known culture. Nagoya’s multiple cafes, voluminous breakfasts and unique menus have earned it the nickname of “the coffee shop kingdom.” One impressive cafe is Komeda Coffee. Established in Nagoya in 1968, Komeda now has 800 outlets nationwide. Last month, Komeda started using fair-trade coffee in the company’s 11 directly owned cafes, in the hope that applying the fair-trade concept to the coffee extracted using a special machine might even heighten its delicious taste and guide Komeda’s coffee fans in an entirely new direction.

Embracing diversity through the big-tent approach

Ms. Harada believes the big-tent approach is key to Nagoya’s successful fair-trade promotion.

“The big-tent approach embraces a diverse range of fair-trade initiatives that do not necessarily carry the FAIRTRADE mark. It encourages citizens, companies and community groups to pursue their own activities under a common umbrella of promoting fair trade, and deepening ties and understanding within the local community. However, some people in Europe and other, more advanced fair-trade regions have some concerns about the big-tent approach.”

The big-tent approach is a source of debate at Fair-Trade Towns international conferences. Some believe it is an effective way of transcending social, economic, political and cultural differences and spreading the movement worldwide, including developing countries. Others fear a broad approach risks diluting the original philosophy.

“The Japanese movement is still in its infancy compared to Europe and the United States, but I believe, at this stage, we should accept companies and groups trying to enter the movement as fundamentally good, rather than eliminate them as a potential risk,” Harada said. “At the start, we should welcome even the smallest fair-trade efforts into the big tent and seek to link and grow them into larger initiatives over time.”

Should Japan change its methods as its Fair-Trade Town activities start to expand onto a level on par with Europe and the US? Should Japan continue with the same big-tent methodology and just consider limiting the size of the tent? As the fair-trade movement grows in Japan, so will the debate over these very issues.


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