Pauline Tiffen: fair trade guru

26 Feb

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story.  In 1985 Pauline Tiffen, working from a grungy office opposite the old Angel tube station, began to shake-up the way companies treated their suppliers. Fast forward to 2014 and meet the woman who helped shoppers get Fairtrade* products.  Interview by Nicola Baird

Pauline Tiffen: xxx

Pauline Tiffen: “I’m not a campaigner, that’s why you haven’t heard of me.”

“My claim to fame is that I was the person who took the decision not to translate perestroika*,” says Pauline Tiffen who is on the board of Divine chocolate.
I’ve been tipped off that this 53-year-old is all about chocolate so do a double-take. Turns out she did Russian Studies at Reading University (until the department was closed by Margaret Thatcher) and used to be a Russian translator. Pauline is really good at languages – she  can also speak French, Spanish, German, a bit of Polish and more recently, thanks to husband Dogan, Turkish – so why didn’t she translate the P word?

“I was working as a journalist and translator in the City,” she partially explains. “When I translated Gorbachev’s economic advisors’ statement about the USSR stopping being communist, I took a decision not to translate perestroika. It was funny later on seeing all these other countries – Vietnam for instance – using their own word for perestroika.”

She then took up a very different role, working as a network organiser at the newly formed Twin* which had been set up by the GLC (Greater London Council). Sharing the building were the Women’s Publishing Collective, the London Food Commission [now in White Lion Street, N1] and some others.

Old Red Lion is where Tom Paine wrote the Rights of Man - inspiring many others including Pauline Tiffen when she worked at TWIN, an early fairtrade networking organisation.

Old Red Lion is where Tom Paine wrote the Rights of Man – inspiring many others including Pauline Tiffen when she worked at TWIN, an early fairtrade networking organisation.

New ideas
“We were unleashed just before Thatcher closed the GLC,” she recalls, “in one of those grungy offices converted from Georgian houses beside a French polisher, an antiques seller and the porn shop on the corner where the Virgin fitness club is now. There wasn’t even a kitchen. All our meetings were in the Old Red Lion. We’d step out of the office, over the road and down that alleyway into the pub.” Pauline stops and laughs at the memory. It’s about 3pm and we’ve met in Maison d’Etre on Highbury Corner for a cup of tea. It seems very refined compared to the stories she tells.

“In the ‘80s we all drank pints at lunch. I don’t know how we did it,” she says faintly embarrassed. But it was the politics that kept her going – “Tom Paine wrote the Rights of Man at the Old Red Lion (in 1791),” she says with pride. “And we drank at another with panelled walls where Marx drank, but has now been pulled down… Even with our pints we knew we were working to revolutionise the world. And all those great ideas, like fairtrade have influenced far beyond their product.”

Marx Memorial Library

Marx Memorial Library at 37a Clerkenwell Green, EC1. This started life as a Welsh charity school. Lenin had his office here – it’s where Iskra (The Spark) was produced. It has long been a centre for Marxist scholars – and is open 12 noon until 4pm Monday to Thursday.

Islington is special
“Islington was a ridiculed bascule then,” she remembers thinking of how the right-wing press saw it as the home of the loony left. And it’s true that Islington can boast a history of the rioting peasants led by Jack Straw*, the Tolpuddle Martyrs*, as well as famous leftie drinkers and writers – not just Tom Paine but Lenin and Marx too. “Islington had more interesting thinking than just militant labour which never turned me on,” she explains.

Even though Pauline has had a house in Islington for many years – she now lives off St Paul’s Road – she is still intrigued by the area. “When I think of the Islington which I know and love, there’s a chimera of a place with the very rich, like Boris Johnson and Keira Knightley, but there’s also the diversity which makes life so multi-dimensional with people of all different origins, classes and cultural norms. It makes life very rich. And now I have children – Aykan, 10, and Jan, 8, – I know another Islington too. At Canonbury School you find every type of person and every religion. There are so many nationalities. My sons are invited to tea at council houses and to homes worth £3.5 million. They don’t distinguish – and in general this mix can only be good.”

Winter view from the steps as you enter Culpepper's Garden. It's a real haven away from the bustle of Angel and the N1 Centre.

Winter view from the steps as you enter Culpepper’s Garden. It’s a real haven away from the bustle of Angel and the N1 Centre.

How Pauline Tiffen spends time with her boys in Islington

  • I love Culpepper’s Garden 1 Cloudsley Road, N1. After shopping, or shaking a tin for coppers for Downright Excellent which my younger son who has Down’s Syndrome needs for speech therapy, we buy snacks and go to the garden to look for wildlife. Downright Excellent is Sainsbury’s local charity of the year.
  • The boys and I love to walk along the New River – we call it Duck Walk.
  • I wish the Duke of Cambridge organic pub wasn’t so expensive. At Divine we still want fairtrade to be accessible for everybody.
  • I’ve always loved Sadler’s Wells, and the boys like modern dance.

All about chocolate
It’s hard to remember when Fairtrade didn’t exist, the best shoppers could do in the early 1980s was boycott products – and that didn’t help small farmers.  But Pauline’s work at Twin Trading helped bring fair trade to the UK, at first coffee beans and then cocoa beans – the essential component of chocolate. “Cafedirect completely changed the coffee market,” says Pauline proudly although she feels that the largest chocolate companies, such as Nestle, do still “dictate the rules”.

“Companies have come a long way, it is now easier to make them care about oil spillages or if factories fall down,” she says. “But they don’t really know how to behave to cocoa farmers. I am happy that companies can say they obey the rules and are fair. But is it enough? I say ‘don’t you want to prove to yourself you are more than a balance sheet?’  A lot of people would like to do the right thing, and there’s enough awareness to get companies to take good ideas seriously… but there aren’t enough good ideas around.”

“I love the campaigners – Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Amnesty International – may they continue,” says Pauline, who claims, “I’m not a campaigner, that’s why you haven’t heard of me, but I wish there were a few more groups working on human rights.”

That’s two interesting challenges from Pauline: Where are the ideas that enable corporates to do good as they trade? Where are the campaigners that work to ensure small farmers or working families get a fair price for their efforts – and are able to live comfortably without fearing hunger, ill health or skimping on schooling for their children?

Pauline lobbed the questions at islingtonfacesblog, perhaps because she has such high expectations for our borough’s ability to shake up the status quo. Please do take it up.


Tolpuddle Martyrs mural by Edward Park, near xxx.

Another Islington left wing legacy: a mural of the Tolpuddle Martyrs (painted in 1984) can be seen at Copenhagen Street, just by the green space at Edward Square, N1. See more here.

Fairtrade is a way shoppers can make a difference through everyday choices. it aims to enable the poorest farmers and workers to improve their position and have more control over their lives. See more at

Perestroika (restructuring) a Russian word brought to the Western world’s attention as USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev began to dismantle communism. Perstroika is often used alongside glastnost (openeness)

Twin Twin Trading (originally known as the Third World Information Network or TWIN) was the first office set up by the GLC [Greater London Council].

Old Red Lion, 418 St John Street, EC1. In addition to famous past drinkers there is a theatre upstairs, see here.

Loony left – affectionate (or sometimes highly critical) reference to Islington’s radical past. In addition to  Thomas Paine, Lenin and Marx there were also significant peasant/worker fight-backs for better conditions including Jack Straw (1381) see more here and the Tolpuddle Martyrs (see mural pic) which saw Dorset men who formed a Trade Union in 1834 arrested and sent to Australia.

Downright Excellent  provides weekly speech and language therapy sessions for children with Down’s Syndrome, as well as support for siblings and carers. It is Sainsbury’s local charity of the year for 2014. World Down Syndrome day is 21 March, see info here.

Over to you
If you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via Thank you. 

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook. Even better follow (see menu top right), @nicolabairduk

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z list of posts, or the A-Z of jobs to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola


One Response to “Pauline Tiffen: fair trade guru”


  1. 15 places in Islington to repair, spring clean, hack or get creative | Islington Faces Blog - February 25, 2015

    […] Pauline Tiffen: fair trade guru. […]

So, what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: