Profile with Charlotte Opal
Charlotte Opal (North Carolina & St. Antony’s 1997) is the former Chair of the Standards Committee for the international Fair Trade standards-setter and co-authored the world’s first textbook on Fair Trade, published by Sage in 2005. She was the founding Head of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, and is now is an independent consultant in Fair Trade and deforestation-free supply chains. She holds an MBA and MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Oxford and a BA in Economics from Wake Forest University.
Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?
Charlotte Opal: Neuchâtel, Switzerland. It means “Newcastle” in French, although our castle dates from 1011.
Rhodes Project: What was the last book you read for pleasure?
Charlotte Opal: I just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and am starting Bringing up the Bodies. They are historical fiction novels set in the time of Henry VIII, about the politics of his court and the separation of the English church from Rome. Since they are so well written, it really brings the story to life. I’m now getting more and more interested in European history. I probably should have developed this interest back when I first lived in the UK, but at that time I was more focused on what the Europeans had done in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favorite memory from Oxford?
Charlotte Opal: I love Summer Eights. It combines my love for rowing with a nice day (somehow it’s always a nice day!) surrounded by your friends, eating strawberries and watching the boats go by.
Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Charlotte Opal: I’ve always been struck by injustice and knew I wanted to make the world a fairer place. I grew up in the suburbs of D.C., but played in an orchestra at an inner-city D.C. high school. At this school, half the water fountains didn’t work, washrooms didn’t have toilet paper much of the time, there was a metal detector when you went in, there were spelling mistakes in the written material that the teachers had posted on the walls, and so on. I was attending a public school too, so the two schools should have been the same, but the DC school was a world apart from mine. I remember thinking about how unfair it was that just because I lived in a different area, I got a better school.
Anyway, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I would do to address injustice in my working life, but I’ve always been attracted to trying to give everyone a more level playing field. That’s only become stronger now that I have children. I realize how they are totally innocent, and they don’t get to choose the environment that they grew up in or how people treat them. It’s become more real to me how unfair these things can be and how we have to work to make it better.
Rhodes Project: What motivated you to enter your line of work?
Charlotte Opal: Once I got to Oxford, I did an MPhil in Development Studies. I initially thought I’d be working in international aid. But I gradually saw from various internships, especially from working in D.C., how insecure aid is as a development model because aid money is trendy. For example, Afghanistan is hot right now but next month it might be East Africa, and everyone’s forgotten about Latin America. Whatever the political whims are is where the money goes.
I thus became much more attracted to business models for being more predictable and, as a business person you are more in control of your future. At most NGOs, everything is more dependent on what funders want. I ended up being more interested in how businesses can contribute to a more sustainable future. I did an MBA at Oxford after I did my MPhil, and then I started working with companies to help them source products more ethically. I’ve worked in Fair Trade food, ethical apparel, and deforestation-free supply chains. I am still working with non-profits, but always with a business angle. I’m just more attracted to business models. I’m an American capitalist economist – I can’t help it.
Rhodes Project: How do you find your job fulfilling?
Charlotte Opal: All the products we buy come from somewhere. This means that you’re connected to people halfway around the world. When you buy something, you enter into a relationship with someone that you’ve never met. If we want to, we can make that an ethical relationship. Everything that we purchase is a vote for how we want to see the world. Bringing sustainable products to the market is incredibly fulfilling; I get to meet farmers and producers, which is very rewarding because I can see the difference that better prices make in their lives. Instead of being a faceless producer they actually have a personal relationship with the buyer, which makes the trading relationship more stable and long term. That delivers a real change for families. It’s very powerful and I am very motivated by what I do.
Rhodes Project: What do you enjoy most about your job?
Charlotte Opal: Since I work with products, there’s a tangible result. It’s not as if you wrote a report that you hope people will read. You actually brought a better product into the market that people are buying for a better life for the producers. It’s putting in place policies, theories and philosophies that I aspire to, by helping a regular consumer who doesn’t work in a non-profit or doesn’t understand global development to make a difference. What I enjoy is that the change is tangible. You can see the impact on the field: that one pound of coffee makes a difference when it’s grown and traded the right way. In public policy, maybe you’d never know if that report you’d written had an impact. That would be frustrating for me. I have huge respect for people who work in policy, I just don’t think I could do it – I’m not that patient.
Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part?
Charlotte Opal: I know a lot about where products come from and how they’re produced, like the working conditions and impact on nature, but find it hard to communicate that to everyday consumers in a way that changes their buying behaviour. I’m frustrated when people who have this information don’t automatically buy organic and Fair Trade products; especially people I know very well and who know what I do. I find it difficult to get more consumers motivated about changing the way they buy products.
On a systemic level, the consumer-driven model I’ve been following has a lot of challenges. It’s been hard enough to change individual consumer behaviour in Europe and in North America, and now there’s a whole group of middle class consumers in the emerging markets who are new to the concepts of ethical consumption and Fair Trade. It’s a big challenge that these consumer movements are slow to build and we don’t have a lot of time left – we are really bleeding this planet dry. So, that’s hard. And yet, one of the good things about social media is that it doesn’t take many consumers to challenge the brands to change their practices. Companies are becoming more reactive, but you still need some consumer pressure to have their corporate interests change. Especially with the emerging markets becoming so much more important, we have to build at least some small consumer activist movements in China and India.
Rhodes Project: What would your ideal day look like?
Charlotte Opal: I just had an ideal day this weekend. My family and I took a walk in the forest with periodic views of the Alps. For the absolute perfect day, I would add getting a babysitter at the end of the day and going out to listen to some live West African music, especially Malian. In Switzerland, particularly the francophone part, West African musicians are more known than in America, and we get some great artists coming through.
Rhodes Project: If you could have lunch with one person, dead or alive, who would it be with and why?
Charlotte Opal: This sounds cheesy, but Ghandi. He was such a powerful example of someone who led on a personal, individual level. He brokered peace in moments when people were very angry. It is so amazing what he was able to do. I would have loved to have seen how he inspired people. Was a physical thing or the way he talked? For such a remarkable ability, can you learn it or is it something innate?
While I was in Zambia during my Oxford studies, I met Kenneth Kaunda, the first president of Zambia. He is one of those people that just oozes leadership; you just want to do whatever he says. I haven’t met many other people like that but I assume Ghandi was like that. I’m in awe of what he was able to accomplish on a personal level to change individuals’ behaviour.
Rhodes Project: What brings you joy in life?
Charlotte Opal: Music and dancing. I used to do a lot of samba when I lived in California. Unfortunately, there’s no samba school in Neuchâtel - one of its few faults.