Do Fair Trade Labels Actually Mean Anything?

By Valerie Vande Panne, an Independent Media Institute writing fellow who contributes to Columbia Journalism Review and Reuters news service, among other outlets. She is the former editor-in-chief of Detroit’s alt-weekly, the Metro Times, and the former news editor of High Times magazine. She is the founder of Blackbird Literacy, an organization providing books to residents and literacy programs in Detroit. Connect with her on Twitter @asktheduchess. Originally published at the Independent Media Institute/a>

If you consider yourself a conscious consumer, you might have stood before the chocolate section at your Whole Foods, reading label after label of “fair trade” logos, and wondered, what the heck do all these different certifications mean?

If you asked yourself that—you’re correct to wonder. There are dozens of “fair trade” logos slapped on products, and some are as empty as you might suspect.

But there are some certifications that do mean something, like no child labor was used in the creation of the product (ahem, fast fashion brands like Adidas and H&M).

Here’s a basic primer on “fair trade” to help you shop smarter, and bring more meaning to your purchases.

What “Fair Trade” Usually Means

We say “usually” because, well, merely using the words doesn’t mean the company adheres to all the principles of fair trade. According to Fair World Project, the principles of fair trade are:

  • Long-Term Direct Trading Relationships
  • Payment of Fair Prices
  • No Child, Forced or Otherwise Exploited Labor
  • Workplace Non-Discrimination, Gender Equity and Freedom of Association
  • Democratic & Transparent Organizations
  • Safe Working Conditions & Reasonable Work Hours
  • Investment in Community Development Projects
  • Environmental Sustainability
  • Traceability and Transparency

By meeting these points, a company is demonstrating their support for localized sustainability—not just environmentally, but also by ensuring workers are compensated justly across the supply chain, from the remotest parts of the world to your store. Fair trade principles should be found encompassing many of the products you purchase regularly, from produce, coffee, tea, and chocolate to non-food items like clothing.

“Fair trade” designation is especially helpful for those consumers unwilling or unable to purchase products from local farmers, regenerative fiber cooperatives, etc.

How “Fair Trade” Is Measured

There are two primary ways “fair trade” companies are measured: By third-party auditors and certifiers, and by member organizations.

Member organizationshave companies that joinand saythey are “fair trade,” and perhaps meet some, or even all, of the criteria for fair trade. However, there isn’t always an on-the-ground auditing process to ensure these “members” of fair trade organizations are, in fact, meeting all those criteria, and there might not be an on-the-ground audit of what’s happening with their products in the home countries, such as in rural Guatemala, or Zimbabwe.

Certifiersprovide a third-party audit of an entire company’s supply chain related to the product or company seeking “certified” fair trade status.

A company can be “certified” but not a “member,” and vice versa.

Some certifier labels to look out for:

Fair for Life(FFL):This label is issued by Ecocert, and according to the Fair World Project, has “strong eligibility requirements with a focus on marginalized producers.”

Fair Trade USA(FTUSA) and Fair Trade Certified:While this organization seems at one time to have been highly regarded, they are no longer endorsed by Fair World Project. FWP cites the organization ignoring concerns from small farm producers as well as falling short on living wage requirements.

Fairtrade International(FLO) and Fairtrade USA:This multi-member association of more than two dozen affiliated organizations works to develop fair trade standards, experts, and helps everyone from small producers to government bureaucracies understand and cultivate fair trade principles. They also have their own constitution.

Some membership-based labels to watch out for:

Fair Trade Federationis North American–oriented and devoted to “building equitable and sustainable trading partnerships and creating opportunities to alleviate poverty.”

World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO):This organization is “the only global network whose members represent the Fair Trade chain from production to sale,” according to Fair World Project.

Fair World Projectis a comprehensive place to learn more about fair trade and its certifiers and meanings—especially since one of their primary purposes is “to keep eco-social terms meaningful.” That’s an important point and no easy task—just look at how everything from “handcrafted” to “natural” to “organic” has been corrupted.

The important takeaway is that some of those labels you’re seeing are more meaningful than others. Read them! Research them! And when you’re trying to evaluate the quality of a company, take a moment to learn about them, and avoid the ones who contribute to child labor, slave wages, and toxic work environment. Also: It’s not just about certifications. There’s a good chance your local farm is good on all points—but absolutely unable to afford proper certifications. Shopping local, where you can know your farmer and food sources, is always a good choice.

And, you can advocate in your community with your local co-ops, clothing and grocery stores for more, and genuine, fair trade products.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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    1. lyman alpha blob

      Hear hear!

      And it’s not just good for keeping you clean. I mix it with water and spray the shrubbery with it to keep the bugs away. It’s very good for keeping the little green worms (sawfly larvae) away from my nice orange azalea.

      I originally heard about it through word of mouth and have never once seen an advertisement for it. I may be the exception rather than the rule, but that makes me a lot MORE likely to purchase it. Once I start seeing ads, I’m going to assume it’s been crapified somehow.

    2. Jaime Garfield

      Dr. Bronner, a true leader in the natural foods industry. I still miss those seaweed sprinkled corn chips. Thanks for the links, I especially liked seeing them go back to the German village where the family were taken around to the sites of Jewish gravesites and nazi stolen factories.
      always the nicest people, the Dr. Bronner family.

  1. Andrew Watts

    Those labels only matter if your personal priority is feelings over politics. Globalization is just another euphemism for imperialism. Fair trade is a marketing scheme to reduce the guilt that affluent liberals feel over the exploitation of other foreign countries. These countries are forced to remain as low-value commodity exporters for western markets and ‘fair’ trade merely assists in locking down that subservient status. In numerous cases this status comes at the expense of domestic food consumption.

    1. oh

      You’re quite correct. Most of these companies mark up their products by a huge amount and use the Fair Trade labels to justify their actions. Coffe, tea and cocoa can be grown in ‘rich’ countries but it’s easier for these companies to exploit the poorer countries because of hefty profit margins.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Really? Coffee, tea and cocoa can be grown in ‘rich’ countries? Can you give some examples, even if only hypothetical, of where in ‘rich’ countries coffee, tea and cocoa ‘could’ be grown?

        1. Andrew Watts

          You can purchase kono or molokai coffee that is grown in Hawaii in the US. There are other places in the continental US where it could be grown or historically has been cultivated which includes some parts of California, Georgia, and other areas of the South. Puerto Rico comes to mind as well considering the soil and climate.

          Peppermint tea leaves are grown in the Willamette Valley in Oregon and green tea leaves are cultivated in Washington. Tea production in Hawaii has steadily increased since the early 2000s. Other varieties of tea require the same environment and conditions where coffee is grown so the South would probably qualify if there aren’t plantations there already.

          I have no specific idea about cocoa. I believe the US has historically imported the majority of it’s cocoa from the Philippines and/or it’s Latin American colonies.

          1. Andrew Watts

            You can purchase kono or molokai coffee that is grown in Hawaii in the US.

            Whoops! Kono is coffee imported from Japan and it’s kona that is cultivated in Hawaii.

          2. drumlin woodchuckles

            These are interesting and valuable examples. These are examples which are not covered in the statement that “it’s easier for these companies to exploit the poorer countries because of hefty profit margins.” These particular companies ARE growing these things in rich countries, even if the profit margin is less.

            One could add another example to the above: Japan and tea.

            But the problem remains in place for cocoa and vanilla and other ” can’t grow it, even in Hawaii” crops. One can do without them altogether. No one ever died of a vanilla defficiency. But if one “will” have one’s vanilla, or one’s cocoa; then there is the choice of buying foul trade vanilla cocoa at a foul price or buying fair trade vanilla cocoa at a fair price.

          3. Branden_H

            Although the examples involving coffee and tea are, strictly speaking, correct in that you can grow them in the continental US, you can’t grow good coffee or tea in the continental US. The crop won’t freeze to death in the southern US, but it will be inferior. The areas of the mainland US that are warm enough have the wrong soil, wrong weather patterns, and lack the altitude needed for decent quality tea and coffee. There are commercial tea plantations in South Carolina, but their product is not good tea. That said, another example of a fine wealthy tea producing country is Taiwan. They make great tea.

            1. a different chris

              I think you all, including drumlin himself, got the question inside out.

              Why aren’t the countries that supply these God(ess) given staples, insanely rich? I mean how highly do we all value coffee? They should be getting a literal ransom.

              But somehow the profits stay in the already-rich part of the world.

              1. drumlin woodchuckles

                Good point. How would the growers-sellers of these commodities build the power to get suitably and deservedly rich off their commodities?

                OPEC style cartels might do it, if every producer joined and if they could withstand outsider efforts to stop them.

                OCEC ( Organization of Coffee Exporting Countries)
                OCocoaEC ( Organization of Cocoa Exporting Countries)
                OVEC ( Organization of Vanilla Exporting Countries)
                OTEC ( Organization of Tea Exporting Countries)
                etc. etc.

                1. J Sterling

                  Answer: be in union. What allows a buyer to drive the price a seller gets down to just above what the seller needs to survive, is that the buyer can go to a seller who will sell for a little less.

                  With countries as with workers, the creators of the goods need to have a one out, all out approach, or they will just bid each other down to the floor.

                  1. drumlin woodchuckles

                    This is a cross-country solidarity which the countries involved will have to build themselves. The current foul-trade buyers and their on-the-scene straw-bosses will oppose such applied solidarity every which way, of course.

                  2. ChrisPacific

                    This is how New Zealand keeps drug prices reasonable: by making a government-owned entity (Pharmac) responsible for all the buying and allowing it to essentially negotiate for the whole country as a single entity.

                    The US pharma industry hates it and wants to kill it. TPP version 1.0 was their most recent attempt at doing so.

    2. Gary

      The nine principles of fair trade are fine things. It would be nice if they also applied to businesses and producers here, too.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Any bussiness trying to apply those nine principles from within the borders of the US will have to charge a higher price to do so. Are you willing to pay that higher price to make those nine principles possible and viable for bussinesses within the US?

        1. Andrew Watts

          Sure, but there are alternatives too. The government could subsidize it at the demand of it’s caffeine addicted consumer-voters. Or maybe business interests would settle for a lower profit margin given the increased domestic competition.

        2. Gary

          I would. The alternative is admitting that U.S. businesses can only remain viable by abusing their employees, being non-transparent, having unreasonable work hours, not being environmentally sustainable, and the rest of the nine points.

      2. Andrew Watts

        I think they are the modern equivalent of buying an indulgence from the Church for your sins. The difference is that Madison Avenue is selling you clever marketing to absolve yourself from your own guilty conscience and self-punishment.

    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      If one is going to apply this view in a logical consistent way, one must refuse to use any items, ever, which come from the imperialized countries and peoples. If you live a life without any trace whatsoever of chocolate, coconut, coffee, tea, vanilla, etc.; then you are in a position to show us the way.

      But if you do use these things, then you can either buy fair-trade things at the fair-trade price or you can buy foul-trade things at the foul-trade price. If you ever buy so much as a single thing from the imperialized countries, that is a choice that you make.

      So . . . do you buy fair trade? Or do you buy foul trade? Or do you buy zero imperialized anything at all?

      1. Andrew Watts

        If one is going to apply this view in a logical consistent way, one must refuse to use any items, ever, which come from the imperialized countries and peoples. If you live a life without any trace whatsoever of chocolate, coconut, coffee, tea, vanilla, etc.; then you are in a position to show us the way.

        That sort of Calvinist shaming doesn’t work on non-white / non-Christian people especially when it’s wrapped in a TINA label. There’s always an alternative which I’ve already mentioned above.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Hmmm. . . . I see. I gather, then, that you buy all the cocoa/coffee/vanilla/etc. you please from whatever foul trade sources you want in order to pay Always The Lowest Price, Always.

          But you support The Revolution, Man! . . . so you can buy as exploitively as you want in the meantime. Supporting ” The Revolution, Man!” is your self-granted indulgence.

          “Calvinist shaming” shaming doesn’t work on white/Christian people anymore, especially when its wrapped in a pie-in-the-sky Fake Alternative . . . someday . . . label.

          1. Jeff

            Oh man, how much time do you think people have to go down every rabbit hole like this?

            Air quality, water quality, pesticides in food, building materials, etc. Bottomless list of things to micromanage if you choose to.

            Shaming people like this very rarely works. Try persuading instead.

            1. drumlin woodchuckles

              Good point. And if someone were to circle back and re-read all my comments, I believe they would mostly seek to persuade or inform without any targeted shaming.
              ( If someone sees a pattern of frequent exceptions to that “rule”, I should probably know about that, even if I rather wouldn’t).

              Now . . . if someone opens a line of argument by shaming others either in particular or in general, I will counter-shame right back. And I will try my very hardest to win the shame-game, and put a stop to any further shaming-gambits of that sort.

  2. Mattski

    Tend to agree. But in at least some cases I have witnessed in the Caribbean farmers who sold coffee beans under the label were able to maintain highly diverse enterprises that fed people locally and their families–the really important thing–and obtained some additional income and currency through such enterprise. But it’s far from being where the focus should lie, which is in a focus on developing local basic needs economies.

    1. Jaime Garfield

      Fair Trade and Rainforest Action labels do reflect responsible programs that help communities in poorer countries with better wages, education and health clinics, and often environmental stewardship help. I can’t believe all the negative responses. I was in the natural foods industry for 35 years, and you harm alot of hard work by your negativity. unfortunately, Fair trade USA did water down the international standards.

  3. drumlin woodchuckles

    But if the Caribbean farmers you witnessed selling at a fair trade price were making enough fair trade money to maintain highly-diverse local–people-feeding economies . . . . then fair trade is helping them change their immediate political economies from the tip-of-the-spearpoint outwards. If these people ARE developing their local economies from the fair trade money, then that is exactly achieving what you say they should “really” focus on achieving. If so, how is fair trade not A good focus point?

  4. J Sterling

    Mattski means they provide a flow of food, and that’s it. The focus should be on import replacement.

    Note: import replacement is not autarky, it’s the opposite of autarky. The goal of autarky is to import less. The goal of import replacement is to import more, and for more of it to be the cooler stuff, not just a trickle of necessities like food.

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