What 'Fair Trade' Means to You and Our Ecosystem

fair trade foods

February 17, 2017

“Fair trade” is a common term that people encounter in places like coffee shops, supermarkets, and boutique clothing stores. Most consumers probably associate this label with good working conditions where the product was grown or produced. Workers’ rights are indeed an integral part of the fair trade movement, but there is much more to it than that.

What is Fair Trade?

The overall goal of fair trade is to create an equal partnership all along the production and supply chains of international commerce. Human rights organization Global Exchange has helped to define the different aspects of fair trade. It begins with producers receiving a fair price for their product so they can afford to pay their laborers a living wage.

Many fair trade growers and manufacturers go beyond this bare minimum by giving workers equity in the business (so they can share in the profits, instead of only receiving a set salary). Another important element of fair trade is sustainability – not just environmental sustainability, but building a sustainable business model that leads to economic development and increased local opportunities.

How is this accomplished? These goals are best illustrated in the agriculture industry. Fair trade arrangements make it possible for farmers to continue traditional methods of agriculture. For example, instead of turning to logging in order to profit from his or her land, an owner can continue to produce shade-grown coffee because he or she obtains a good price for the beans through a fair trade agreement. The deal makes it financially rewarding for this farmer to continue working in an eco-friendly, sustainable manner.

Which Fair Trade Labels Can You Trust?

In the United States, the Global Exchange recognizes fair trade labels from the Fairtrade Labeling Organization/Fair Trade USA and from Fairtrade America. Both organizations are often associated with food products. The Fair Trade Federation, meanwhile, is most often involved in certifying handcrafted goods and clothing.

The Institute for Marketecology (IMO) also certifies businesses and products based on ethical standards. IMO is a Swiss organization that offers a number of different certifications. Its Fair for Life program, for example, allows companies to prove fair trade practices (via an audit by an impartial inspector). This program is worldwide and open to all businesses, regardless of size or product. Therefore, IMO labels can be obtained even by producers and manufacturers that fall outside the scope for fair trade certifications from other organizations.

When You Buy Fair Trade, What Are You Actually Doing?

When you purchase fair trade products, you are supporting small businesses in other parts of the world. These hardworking individuals are often priced out of business by “free trade” treaties. Because of the fair trade movement, smaller operations can remain in business and, ideally, provide better working conditions than larger companies. So, in a sense, when you purchase products that have one of the aforementioned fair trade labels, you are supporting “the little guy.”

Being able to demonstrate fair labor practices is an important aspect of the certification process, which includes refraining from using child labor or other forms of “forced labor.” Because of this, fair trade shoppers are indirectly supporting the rights of children not to work, as well as ensuring good conditions for adult laborers. Finally, fair trade labeling audits include an environmental component, as it ensures the certified business has sustainability practices.

Fair trade products cannot contain genetic modifications (GMOs), and they must be made with products grown with a minimum amount of pesticides and inorganic fertilizers. Not all fair trade products are 100 percent organic, but fair trade labeling organizations tend to offer an additional organic certification. It is important to note that “organic” and “fair trade” may appear on the same label, but the two terms are not interchangeable. With or without the “organic” label, though, buying fair trade products is a way to support sustainable, natural agriculture practices.

Are Fair Trade Products More Expensive?

It is a common assumption that fair trade products are more expensive than similar non-certified items. Occasionally, this is the case – but not always. Fairtrade International points out that the market prices are often a bigger factor in the final retail cost than the money needed to produce and import fair trade products. The Guardian claims that staple items such as coffee, tea, and fruit with a fair trade label cost roughly $1.50 more on average than similar items without the label.

A recent study explained that fair-trade products such as coffee have a minimum price. The producer is guaranteed a certain amount of money for every pound of coffee exported. When coffee prices are high (as they have been in recent years), then the minimum price does not affect the retail price equation. Fair trade growers have been receiving the “market price,” which is no different than the price that other producers are paid. Other aspects of the coffee production process – roasting, marketing, packaging, etc. – also factor into the final price tag displayed on the shelves.

Big Companies Can Use Fair Trade Products Too

While fair trade is often associated with small businesses, it is certainly not limited to more obscure brands and companies. Some well-known brands are also involved in the movement. Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream was one of the first big names to start using fair trade ingredients. It now uses fair trade sugar, cocoa, nuts, coffee, and bananas. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Kashi (a Kellogg subsidiary), Starbucks, Whole Foods, and Chick-fil-A also use fair trade ingredients and products. The grocery chain Safeway sources its seafood from fair trade businesses.

The Fair Trade USA and Fairtrade America both have databases of all the companies they have certified. Fashion magazine Marie Claire recently published an article covering a number of brands that either produce or import fair trade clothing and textiles. The point is this: consumers do not necessarily have to switch to unknown brands or travel to remote stores to obtain fair trade products. All they must do is spend a little bit of time researching the trade practices of the brands they already buy.

Fair Trade Ideas You Can Use at Home

If sustainability is important to you, there are steps you can take at home to use practices that many fair-trade certified businesses around the world use. Perhaps you could install a drip irrigation system or use rainwater harvesting for a garden or your landscaping. Solar power and other forms of renewable energy are also not only options for commercial farmers.

Special programs, including PACE financing programs, are available in many states to help homeowners who want to install environmentally friendly features on their property. Buying fair trade products is a good way to help small producers and local ecosystems in other parts of the world. Making eco-friendly improvements to your property can bring this effort to create a more sustainable world right to your own home.

Discover how PACE financing can help you live a more sustainable lifestyle – call Ygrene at (855) 901-3999 or email: info@ygreneworks.com