The story behind the speaker #7: Molly Harris Olson


Molly Harris Olson on activism, fair trade and being part of the solution to make the world a better place.

As the CEO of Fairtrade Australia & New Zealand, Molly Harriss Olson leads a dynamic team strengthening Fairtrade supply chains, growing impact for small producers and bolstering environmental and economic sustainability practices throughout the Asia Pacific region.

It’s a role that combines a long history of impactful activism for social change with a passion for sustainable development and clear-headed understanding of the business economics behind inclusive development.
Over her career Molly has delivered the opening plenary of the World Economic Forum’s 2000 meeting in Davos, chaired Swedish King Carl Gustaf’s Business Leadership and the Environment Symposium in 1996, was appointed executive director of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development under the Clinton Administration, and was named one of the Australian Financial Review’s “100 Women of Influence” in 2014.

Tell us about your role, experience, and journey to where you are. Why are you passionate about the industry?

Growing up in California in the sixties and seventies meant I was no stranger to activism. I was surrounded by people fighting for a better future, whether through anti-Vietnam war protests, the outrage at Civil Rights injustices, growing environmental awareness, concern over endangered marine life, or recognising the mistreatment of First Nations people. It taught me two things: that change never happens spontaneously, and that the force of collective will is almost unstoppable. On top of that, I was raised Quaker and often heard about bearing witness and speaking truth to power. Fighting for a better future made so much sense it never even occurred to me, coming from the family I did or the time or the place I did, to see injustice and ignore it. Either we are part of the solutions to making the world a better place, or we are part of the problem – I chose the solution.

Since marching as a university student, with 100,000 other people, in Washington to protest against nuclear power in the wake of the Three-Mile Island meltdown, I have learned that collaborative can beat combative when it comes to changing minds.

Sometimes the most powerful change comes from within, implemented by the very forces that once defended the old order. The principles behind Fairtrade mean doing exactly that – taking all the aspects of trade that traditionally appeal to business, and using them to promote inclusivity and sustainability. When Fairtrade started it was a revolutionary idea – to lift people in developing countries out of poverty by asking consumers to make conscious choices at the checkout. But 30 years on it’s considered common sense. As anyone who had been in northern California at the end of the sixties could tell you, you don’t argue with people power!

Tell us something about you that people may not already know:

My introduction to Fairtrade was being headhunted to chair the Fairtrade International board and I quickly realised that more than any organisation I have had the privilege to work with for 30 years – Fairtrade has the systemic comprehensive framework at scale to actually change the economic system; and thus the social and environmental outcomes. I also spent time working on Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior, leading an often dangerous campaign off the Victorian coast at Warrnambool to protect a southern right whale calving ground from oil drilling. It was so successful that the skipper and I were personally sued by BHP, as was Greenpeace. That was a very early version of the SLAPP lawsuits (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) that would later be used to try to silence Bob Brown and other Tasmanian conservationists and individual advocates. Sometimes the price of living your values can be high.

I also have a weakness for Fairtrade chocolate – an occupational hazard of working here!
Molly will be speaking on a panel this year, centred around Certification Systems: Should you use one for your product or business?
Be sure to book your tickets to the Ethical Enterprise Conference as soon as possible, by visiting the Moral Fairground webpage here.

Keep an eye out over the following weeks as we bring you more of the stories behind the speakers and we look forward to seeing you at the Ethical Enterprise Conference 2018!

Until next time,


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