May is World Fair Trade month! Huzzah! What’s fair trade, you say? Well… That’s a good question. You’ve probably heard this phrase often. We know we should buy fair trade. It’s a better option for our sustainable lives. But… Why? Why should we buy fair trade items? What does “fair trade” even mean? Does the certification system actually mean anything or is it greenwashing?
What Does it Mean? Why is it Necessary?
According to Merriam-Webster, Fair Trade is “a movement whose goal is to help producers in developing countries to get a fair price for their products so as to reduce poverty, provide for the ethical treatment of workers and farmers, and promote environmentally sustainable practices.” Okay, cool. All of that sounds great! But why do we need this?
Developing/Global South countries were exploited during the height of colonialism. They had valuable goods and colonizer countries wanted to import these goods at cheap prices. Systems were put in place to keep prices horribly low so the Global North could enjoy these products at low cost. During the 1950s, people in the Global North (ex. Europe and North America) purchased goods from the Global South. These people called their goods “fair trade.” They promised to give a hefty portion of the purchase price to the original artisan/grower. Unfortunately, this was often a lie and created a lot of consumer distrust and confusion around the term.
Fairtrade Certification focuses on a wide variety of products. Coffee, chocolate, tea, cotton, sugar, and bananas are the most common.
Why is Fair Trade Important?
Fairtrade certification has a lot of upsides. First, it helps dismantle the colonial systems put in place to keep people in poverty. It provides the money, framework, and infrastructure to produce products and sell them at a fair price.
Second, Fairtrade implements helps control market price. They implement a minimum price, which protects goods from volatile market prices. As a result, people experience less exploitation, child labor, and poverty. Third, with the fair trade premium, farmers can invest in their community, employees, and growing their farming operation.
To oversee all these factories, farms, and production areas, they use an independent, third party organisation. As a result, this helps ensure safe working conditions and prevent greenwashing.
Pitfalls of Fair Trade
As with any certification system, there are people who take advantage of it to further their own goals. This study claims that Fairtrade certification doesn’t do enough to help farmworkers. These workers are most easily exploited because they are hired by the farmers and often receive few fair trade benefits. Despite these claims, there are many problems with this study.
Other companies are using misleading language to make their products look sustainable and ethical. They use environmental lingo and green colours while not putting in the effort to actually create a sustainable supply chain. This is greenwashing at its finest. Don’t feel bad if you fall for it. Companies put a ton of work in to these campaigns and want to mislead you. To combat this, look for certification such as the Fairtrade.
What About Direct Trade?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t briefly address direct trade in this post. Usually, we see “direct trade” in the coffee industry. Whereas fair trade is a certification, direct trade is more of an ideology. The main difference is the lack of an importer. End retailers, such as a coffee roaster, make direct relationships with the grower/farmer. There are fewer middlemen and expenses in a direct trade system. This allows for higher prices and more money going directly to farmers and workers.
Sounds great, right? Not entirely. As with any system, there are a few issues with it. Direct trade isn’t a regulated term. Moreover, it doesn’t have a standard definition. In other words, this leads to confusion for consumers. Finally, producers are not held accountable, which can lead to exploitation in other areas. They also don’t have to farm in an environmentally friendly way.
So, is Fairtrade Worth it?
Fairtrade certification isn’t perfect. Like any system, it’s open to exploitation. But, overall, fair trade products help farmers and their communities. All in all, fair trade products benefits communities. If you can afford it, buying fair trade certified products is ideal.