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Dutch activists played a pivotal role in establishing the global Fair Trade Movement. This is one of the findings of new research carried out by UvA historian Peter van Dam on the history of the movement behind the well-known fair trade products. Van Dam’s findings were published earlier this month in the book Wereldverbeteraars: een geschiedenis van fair trade (AUP 2018).

Credits: AUP

The Max Havelaar Foundation, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this month, was a small-scale initiative that grew into an international success story. Its original aim was to sell coffee with a Fair Trade Certification Mark. Since then, the initiative has significantly grown in scope. Today fair trade products like coffee, bananas and chocolate are sold in supermarkets across the world. Van Dam’s research sheds light on the colourful roots of the Max Havelaar certification mark and highlights the reasons why activists in the 1980s targeted market actors directly.


‘The history of fair trade goes back to public calls for greater global solidarity in the 1950s and 1960s’, says Van Dam, who in 2012 received an NWO Veni grant for research on the history of the fair trade movement. ‘The movement is much older than commonly thought. Dutch activists were pioneers of selling handicraft made by producers in the Global South. In 1968, they launched an international campaign – the cane sugar initiative – to influence European trade policy. In 1969, the activists were frontrunners once again by establishing world shops as local campaigning centres, which also sold products from the Global South. In the following years, these shops spread throughout Europe.’    

The introduction of Max Havelaar coffee in 1988 is part of a series of campaigns that were adopted by likeminded activists in other countries. Today, the international trade mark organisation Fairtrade Labelling International represents producer groups from 75 countries. In 2017, over 8 billion euros in fair trade products were sold globally.

To the market

In his book, Van Dam also looks at the reasons why activists chose to achieve their aims through the market instead of the political domain. Van Dam: ‘While efforts to change political trade structures kept failing, boycott actions were surprisingly successful. In addition, coffee producers called on activists in the Global North to sell more coffee in order to keep them financially afloat. This prompted activists to sell trade mark coffee in supermarkets and thereby help the farmers to sell more of their own produce. Bolstered by a larger market share, they then hoped to apply more pressure in the commercial and political sector. The emergence of market-based thinking wasn’t only a right-wing power grab – for activists in the 1980s, a market-oriented approach was actually the most effective means to promote fair trade and support coffee producers.’ 


The fair trade movement is one of the most successful social movements of the post-World War Two era, says Van Dam. The movement’s success has also generated persistent criticism in recent years. Since the 1960s, the movement has managed to raise awareness on the importance of fair trade among politicians, businesses and the general public. However, as a result of more people purchasing fair trade products, the movement’s political aims have come under increasing pressure. Selling fair trade products is not a substitute for businesses’ own corporate and social responsibility. The political is ultimately responsible for fair structures of global trade, as the fair trade movement has made clear since the 1960s. When these aspects are overlooked or forgotten, fair trade runs the risks becoming a luxury item.  

Publication details

Peter van Dam: Wereldverbeteraars. Een geschiedenis van fair trade. Amsterdam University Press, 2018.