activist notes


Ethical Purchasing Policy Q and A for University of Toronto by activistnotes

By Ian Hussey

Below are six follow-up questions to a talk I recently had with a Social Equity senior seminar at the University of Toronto. I’m not publicly posting my initial response to these questions because I think what I have to offer for answers is anything particularly brilliant. I’m posting my initial answers here because I know there are others who could contribute to and learn from this dialogue. Knowing me, I’ll keep thinking about these questions and may add to this post in a day or two. Hopefully others will too!

The questions

1) What, besides “fair trade”, have “ethical” purchasing policies entailed at other schools?

2) Would you recommend asking the University admin to go completely fair trade or to work towards a goal incrementally?

3a) How much student awareness or support of fair trade would you say is needed before going to the University admin with the request of a fair trade purchasing policy?

3b) Would it be more beneficial if we were to have a collaborative relationship with the administration to begin with – i.e. start off with fair trade options being commonplace than gradually ramping it up as student demand builds for fair trade – has such a model ever worked?

4) When more than fair trade coffee, tea, and chocolate are involved, what kind of suggestions would you have for streamlining the sourcing process for various fair trade/ethical goods? (especially since U of T is so large and has many small supply chains)

5) Suggestions on how to “sell” the admin on going Fair Trade? (Beyond saying it would make them look good)

6) Why is U of T not part of the student Ethical Purchasing Policy Action Guide e-published last August?

Initial responses

First, thanks again for inviting me to your seminar and for the follow-up questions (and not too many in number, phew!). I had hoped to get to these a week ago, sorry for the delay.

1) What, besides “fair trade”, have “ethical” purchasing policies entailed at other schools?

Response: The term “Ethical Purchasing Policy” originally indicated an institutional No Sweat or union-made policy for procuring garments particularly. Through time and policy developments, the term has now come to be more general. It can indicate a No Sweat policy or a Fair Trade Certified product policy, or a policy for both No Sweat garments and Fair Trade Certified agricultural products.

To add to the confusion, Trent University in Peterborough passed a Fair Trade Purchasing Policy which is actually a No Sweat procurement policy, and then they passed a Fair Trade Certified Product Policy for agricultural products. But, hey, at least they have both – not enough Canadian schools can say that.

Local food policies, like U of T already has, have not traditionally been included in Ethical Purchasing Policies. Procurement policies for local food are usually simply and straightforwardly called Local Food Policies. The reason LFPs haven’t been included in EPPs isn’t because buying local food isn’t “ethical purchasing.” It is because in the institutional purchasing realm, local food is a newer development than No Sweat and Fair Trade. Having organizations like Local Food Plus helps a lot. Most of these organizations are newer developments than trade unions, the No Sweat movement, or TransFair Canada and the institutionalization of the fair trade movement. 

2) Would you recommend asking the University admin to go completely fair trade or to work towards a goal incrementally?

Response: I don’t think U of T can even go 100% Fair Trade for agricultural products that are Fair Trade Certified by TransFair Canada. Like profs and activists found at McMaster University about five years back, there are corporate interests already deeply embedded on campus. Is there a Tim Hortons or Starbucks on your campus? For instance. Sure there is. What about a Second Cup? You can get Fair Trade Certified coffee at Starbucks and Second Cup. I’d never go there, but there are many people at most universities that do and will continue to, so you might as will work with those corporations on your campus while they are still on your campus (UVic kicked Starbucks off campus. Word up, UVic! Left coast!). The University can’t break current contracts even if they wanted to, which they don’t. So, they have contracts with corporations, including a mega food service provider for the cafeterias and catering services. So, you’ll need to work with the University and the food service provider and whatever corporation supplies the food service provider. Directly or indirectly, these are the players. 

When Dorothy Smith and I were doing interviews in Vancouver for our study into the City’s Ethical Purchasing Policy, a labour leader offered a piece of advice that seems appropriate here. If you are trying to make a hole in a wall, you don’t use the blunt end of your tool. You use the pointed end, and once you’re in there you try to widen the hole. In other words, get an official, legally binding commitment from the admin via a policy. Then work on expanding the scope of the policy as the admin and the food service provider see that Fair Trade is popular and viable as a business practice. Depending on the food service provider, they may already be supplying other schools with Fair Trade products. Likely they are. But you don’t want them to simply start supplying U of T with Fair Trade, you want that commitment in writing as well – a policy commitment!

For the smaller shops on campus, it is ideal if they source supplies from 100% committed Fair Trade businesses. There are several in and around the Toronto area alone. Maybe this is also an option for the admin and the food service provider. Worth investigating in collaboration with them.

As activists, you are working in one of the largest and oldest universities in North America. They have a long history and with that comes a certain reputation and culture as an institution. They aren’t going to just jump into anything. You’ll need to convince them! And even then they’ll need to be continually convinced through time and experience with Fair Trade.

3a) How much student awareness or support of fair trade would you say is needed before going to the University admin with the request of a fair trade purchasing policy?

Response: Well, since it is April now, we’re really talking about ramping up your campaign to start in September, I would think. You mentioned the U of T Engineers Without Borders chapter has done some work on surveying the Fair Trade scene on campus. If I were you, I’d work over the summer with EWB, the student union, other student groups on campus, and some local Fair Trade businesses to prepare for September. Having an active EWB chapter on campus will help you a lot. Plus, the City of Toronto has a lot of knowledgeable fair traders and trade justice folks around. Reach out to them!

After doing some awareness-raising and educational actions throughout September, including frosh week, I’d approach the admin as a group in October (after you participate in Equinomics’s second Activist School in Ottawa, October 1 – 3!). Deliver a presentation, the materials, photographs, arguments, graphs, numbers, etc you’ve prepared over the summer and throughout September. Tell them about the Fair Trade Halloween celebration you’re organizing. Hey, you could organize a Halloween party and serve Fair Trade products and local food, that would be rad! Send me an invite, yo! Maybe some local bands and DJs would work the party for free. Party goers could wear No Sweat garments, that would also be rad. You could have a trade justice “fashion show.”

Give the admin some Fair Trade Certified chocolate when you meet with them. Crack open the bars right there and then. Might I suggest La Siembra’s Chili & Spice bar and some other varieties (I likes it spicy!). 

There are other purchasing managers at other schools who have these kinds of policies that would be happy to speak with the purchasing managers at U of T, I’m sure. This professional-to-professional dialogue would likely go a long way.

Oh, and I bet Jack Layton, Olivia Chow, Peggy Nash, and other politicians (local, provincial and federal) would sign a letter to the admin asking for Fair Trade on campus. Reach out to them! And I don’t just mean NDP politicians. What about Bob Rae or others? Hmm. Maybe the Mayor would too. He has signed proclamations for International Development Week for the last few years when the Ontario Council for International Cooperation has asked (word up, OCIC). 

Get the media involved. Lori and Wayne must know some reporters.

So, what I’m saying is don’t wait too long into the academic year before approaching the admin. There has already been groundwork done on Fair Trade issues at U of T, by EWB and others. There is scads of Fair Trade products available in the City of Toronto. All of the coolest cafes in the city are Fair Trade cafes, of course. The University already has a No Sweat and a local food policy. The real question for U of T: why the heck don’t they also have a Fair Trade Certified Product Policy? They would be the first school in Canada to have all three, I think. That’s a great brag for them!

PS – don’t directly ask them that question😉

3b) Would it be more beneficial if we were to have a collaborative relationship with the administration to begin with – i.e. start off with fair trade options being commonplace than gradually ramping it up as student demand builds for fair trade – has such a model ever worked?

Response: Yes. Haha, I want to leave my response as just that, but yeah an incremental approach is usually how these things happen. I think Trent went 100% pretty much off the bat for Fair Trade Certified coffee, but someone like Pat or Rosie or Rey or Paul who were involved at Trent would know that better than I.

But, think of it this way, a Fair Trade Certified Product Policy is a new thing for the admin and their procurement staff. Sure, other schools have them, but U of T doesn’t. So, they are likely going to want to feel things out. As the policy is adopted and implemented they will hopefully see the benefits of Fair Trade and that the policy isn’t costing them a bunch of dough, isn’t a pain in their collective butts to manage, and volume of sales and, more important to them, revenue hasn’t dipped.

4) When more than fair trade coffee, tea, and chocolate are involved, what kind of suggestions would you have for streamlining the sourcing process for various fair trade/ethical goods? (especially since U of T is so large and has many small supply chains)

Response: Well, it depends on what “ethical goods” you are talking about. You’re going to have to be more specific to get a more specific response. These things are often issue and product specific. But if a company can’t offer all the different “ethical” and “sustainable” products, then obviously the products need to come from different sources. Also, U of T will have to publicize Requests for Proposals, perhaps one for each product, perhaps they can do one for several products that can be “bundled” together. But they aren’t going to chuck them all together. You won’t see recycled paper thrown in with union-made garments, for instance.

As far as Fair Trade Certified products, it is pretty tough to get an initial commitment beyond coffee at some schools. At others coffee, tea, chocolate, hot chocolate, and sugar have been done. And maybe some dried fruits (a great alternative to chips and unhealthy snacks like that. U of T cares about their students’ health, I would think. Hey, they have a local, organic food policy, right?). Oh, and Fair Trade Certified bananas are becoming more available in “eastern” Canada. That’s a shout-out to Equicosta in Montreal (Hi Julie!). There is scads of these five things (coffee, tea, chocolate, hot chocolate and sugar) around, especially in southern Ontario. I know, for instance, La Siembra Cooperative, Oxfam Fair Trade and other businesses are reading this post. And you can bet they and others would jump at an opportunity to work with you and U of T. As they should, of course.

5) Suggestions on how to “sell” the admin on going Fair Trade? (Beyond saying it would make them look good)

Response: You might start your presentation to them or conversation with them by asking them some questions, like: do you believe in human rights? What about children’s rights? Do you think women should be treated with respect and equally to men? Do you believe in environmental sustainability? Organic farming? Workers’ right to freedom of association? And so on. They’ll answer yes to all of these, I would think. Then you might say, well, that’s just great, so do we and that’s why we’re down with Fair Trade. And there you go, you’ve begun to box them into their own words right from the get go. Look at you go😉

They’ll want to know about how going Fair Trade will affect their budget. They’ll assume Fair Trade “costs” more (in the traditional, one-dimensional sense of “cost”). Don’t dance around the issue. Take it on head on. Money and revenue is a big deal for schools and the businesses they run and work with. Let’s not be naive.

But, it is possible to manage a Fair Trade supply and keep the same revenue as you had with conventional goods. In fact, it is possible to manage a Fair Trade supply and make a higher percent profit than you did with conventional goods. For a couple reasons.

They likely aren’t sourcing complete shit for coffee. If in some venues they’re sourcing Starbucks or Seattle’s Best or other branded coffees that are considered “gourmet” (though they aren’t gourmet, in my humblest of opinions), then these brands cost a lot. More than most Fair Trade Certified coffees, even the best ones (I gotta tell ya, unless I’m in Atlantic Canada where I drink Just Us! coffee, then I drink Kicking Horse coffees and espresso. But Alternative Grounds and Ideal Coffee are other great choices in Toronto. Alternative Grounds is my local cafe in Ronce, gotta love their velvet espresso!). And many Fair Trade coffees actually are gourmet, and they’re organic! Quality. And they don’t have to cost you big time. Ask Vancouver’s Park Board, they saved thousands by switching from Seattle’s Best to Salt Spring Coffee Co. Why? Keep reading…please keep reading, won’t you? :) 

When the University has a policy, they will then publicize a Request for Proposals. When you put Fair Trade businesses or at least businesses who sell some Fair Trade Certified goods in a competitive environment, well, they’ll just have to compete with one another (I owe Michael Zelmer credit for that line of thinking. Blame Zelmer if you disagree😉. By law, the procurement staff at U of T, and anywhere else, must reward a contract to the lowest bidder if they meet all of the bid criteria. In this case, the Request for Proposals would state that the coffee or chocolate or whatever product they’re looking to source, has to be Fair Trade Certified by TransFair Canada. So, a 100% committed business might win, a business who does 5% Fair Trade might win. If you want to add an extra twist, the policy could state that the supplier must be a coop. Why not try to set the bar high? You may or may not be able to convince the admin of that one.

In the case where there is current longterm contracts, like with the food service provider, they’ll need to work with the provider to adjust the current supply, if it isn’t currently Fair Trade. So, they might start sourcing bulk sugar or sugar packets from La Siembra, Oxfam Fair Trade, Just Us! or Level Ground Trading or Wholesome Sweeteners instead of that bleached, chemically-pumped, disgusting crap they probably now source. Putting the food service provider, admin folks and the University’s purchasing managers in touch with some of the good people at these companies is a good idea. Let them talk business and numbers. These conversations go a long way, but you ALL should be a part of them.  

6) Why is U of T not part of the student Ethical Purchasing Policy Action Guide e-published last August? 

Response: U of T’s local food and No Sweat policies should be included in the action guide, of course. The reason is a fairly simple one: time. Equinomics is hoping to revise and expand the guide over the summer, with many more policy and case study examples. In which case, we’ll be in touch to get further info from Lori and Wayne on U of T’s local food policy.

Ok, your turn. Hit me back. 


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