(Approx. reading time 3 mins 38 secs)
Fair trade has become one of those ‘good’ words associated to food, much like organic or local. But, just like those, most of us don’t really understand what fair trade really means or what products can actually be fair trade. It is usually seen as a beneficial thing, even something we should prioritise when shopping, but what is it exactly?
What does fair trade mean?
Even though the concepts of alternative trade and fair trade have been around for a long time, it was only in 2001 that fair trade was formally defined.
The definition doesn’t mention specific food products. That’s because fair trade goes beyond food and includes toiletries, clothes, and homewares among other products.
That all sounds really nice, but it’s not very concrete. Also, it mentions fair trade organisations, which takes us to…
The WFTO, World Fair Trade Organization
There are a lot of fair trade organisations. Many countries have their own, and many countries have more than one. And, as it usually happens, the rules of each organisation are different.
As a way to make it easier for everyone involved the WFTO now acts as an international grouping of these smaller organisations.
The WFTO has a defined set of rules and standards that all organisations that belong to it have to follow. The actual regulations can be somewhat complex and they can change regularly, but they follow 10 basic principles of fair trade.
Along with the WFTO, there’s also the FLO (fair trade labelling organisations), which mostly handles labelling regulations.
The 10 principles of fair trade
- Creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged producers.
- Transparency and accountability.
- Fair trade practices.
- Payment of a fair price.
- Ensuring no child labour and forced labour.
- Commitment to non-discrimination, gender equity and women’s economic empowerment, and freedom of association.
- Ensuring good working conditions.
- Providing capacity building.
- Promoting fair trade.
- Respect for the environment.
Which products can be fair trade?
The exact kind of products changes over time depending on economic and political circumstances. But as of posting the products that can be bought under the fair trade umbrella include:
- bananas: the most popular fair trade product
- carbon credits: available for companies that sell or produce fair trade products and used to support renewable energy, efficient energy, and reforestation projects.
- flowers and plants: unlike other products, flowers are usually grown in large plantation so the fair trade certification tends to refer to hired labour standards (which include contracts, minimum wages, and the right to form unions).
- fruit (and juice): these include mango, pineapple, papaya, and avocado.
- gold (and other precious metals)
- herbs and spices: pepper, cinnamon, ginger, vanilla, turmeric, nutmeg, saffron… and the list keeps growing.
- nuts and oils: either edible or non-edible (as part of toiletries, cosmetics, and household products), these include a large variety from peanuts to olives, and coconuts to shea nuts.
- quinoa: the issues arising from quinoa’s worldwide popularity have been in the limelight for several years, and the fair trade certification tries to combat them.
- sports balls: balls might seem a bit of an odd product to give the fair trade certification to, but sports balls need very detailed work and they are a highly-popular product usually produced by underpaid workers under exploitative conditions.
- textiles: as part of the fairtrade textiles programme
- vegetables: almost every vegetable can be fairtrade, including some lesser known ones.
- composites: these are final products are are made with a combination of fair trade regulated and non-regulated primary products. To be considered fair trade they need to be made with a minimum percentage of fair trade products (the exact amounts depend on the final product)
The main criticism of fair trade is the generally higher price of products for consumers, which in many cases is a lot higher than what the producer receives. Fair trade labelling is used by many companies as a sign of prestige and as an excuse to bump up prices and, therefore, their financial gains, above that of the actual producers.
The WFTO doesn’t currently deal with issues affecting consumers, only those affecting producers. Some experts in fair trade think that fair trade organisations should consider consumers, while others don’t. For now, organisations only regulate the origin of products, not the sales to end-consumers.
The other big criticism against fair trade is that it has a negative impact on those producers who are not part of fair trade practices. Fair trade producers receive support that usually results in better production, which saturates the market and brings prices down. They still get paid a fair trade price, but their competitors end up losing money and become poorer. Some argue that fair trade goes against market freedom, others that fair trade should be the norm for everyone and then no one would lose.
The third bug criticism against fair trade is the increase of exportation in detriment of selling to local markets. According to critics, producers make more money by selling to other richer countries, which means that the local population can be left a lack of the product (quinoa is the most commonly cited example when it comes to this).
So, is fair trade a good or a bad thing?
As with most things in life, there’s really no clear black and white answer. It depends on where your individual priorities fall and your own personal code of ethics. And it might even be that you agree with fair trade regulations for some products, but not others.