Special Report: Fair Trade
About Fair Trade
Fair Trade is a vast and complicated subject. It strives to ensure living wages, ethical working conditions, and sustainable business and environmental practices throughout the supply chain, from workers to producers to consumers. It eliminates some of the middlemen in conventional supply chains, freeing up more of the price paid by consumers to help the small farmers and artisans that produced the goods. Many, though not all, products that are certified Fair Trade are also certified Organic.
Originally, to become fair trade certified, a producer had to be part of a democratically run, worker-owned cooperative. Fair Trade USA has modified that model; see Co-operative News. The cooperatives help provide health care and education for their members. Fair trade empowers women through equal pay for men and women for equal work, through greater opportunities for girls as well as boys to attend school, and because many fair trade businesses are owned by women.
According to Green America's Guide to Fair Trade, pages 10-14, the following products are available with Fair Trade certification: coffee, chocolate (infamous in conventional brands for its use of child slave labor), tea, rice, sugar, fresh fruit, flowers, vanilla, sports balls, wine, apparel, home décor, jewelry, handicrafts, musical instruments, toys, and more.
There are several Fair Trade labels for various certifications, and this can lead to confusion. Some certifications have stricter requirements than others, and not all labels are transparent about what percentages of ingredients in their products are required to earn the certification. For information on the labels, see ResponsibleConsumer's Products and Services page, under "What's in a Fairtrade Label?", and Using the Fairtrade International Mark
Can there be a socially responsible tea, by Ashwini Sukhtankar and Peter Rosenblum
Although the Indian 1951 Plantations Labour Act guarantees decent food, housing, medical care, and education, "government inspectors never venture into the 'labour lines' where workers live, and so the fact that houses are crumbling, latrines overflowing, and rations composed merely of broken rice and fibrous atta – almost literally the scraps from the table – has become invisible. The government’s own statistics suggest that it has given up any effort at serious enforcement."
"As declared in a recent document supported by all of the largest tea brands and social responsibility NGOs working in the sector, tea is a potential 'Hero Crop,' making a better life for all of its workers and consumers. But as our three years of research shows, the rhetoric so far outpaces the reality that it has created a perverse incentive for companies – and even social responsibility NGOs – to deny and cover up the horrendous conditions that researchers like Virginius Xaxa have been documenting for decades."
The authors of this article were asked by "the Fairtrade Labelling Organization (now Fairtrade International) ...to try to obtain independent verification of their claim that Fair Trade “empowers” plantation workers. The plantations had volunteered to be part of the study, obviously intending to highlight the strides they had made." The findings of researchers Sukhtankar and Rosenblum that "conditions on Fair Trade-certified plantations were not noticeably better – and in some cases, were significantly worse – than conditions in the tea sector as a whole" did not please Fair Trade International, and that organization called off the research.
"...Fair Trade was initially developed for producer cooperatives, where it may be safe to assume that benefits are spread more equitably [than on hierarchically managed plantations]. For tea, the organization agreed to extend certification to traditional plantations with hired labour, rather than cooperatives, in exchange for a commitment that they improve conditions and implement a living wage for workers." There still is not a minimum wage, let alone a living wage.
Equal Exchange offers an alternative to plantation-produced tea.Their website states "Our delicious Fair Trade and Organic teas come from our small farmer partners in India, Sri Lanka and South Africa. Most teas on the shelf - even Fair Trade teas - come from plantations, where tea workers have little say. Join us in supporting a small farmer tea model in which farmers control their futures."
Fair Trade USA's proposed changes in standards for certification have been criticized for diluting the meaning of the label by allowing it to be prominently displayed on packaging of coffee, tea, or cocoa that have relatively small percentages of those ingredients but include large percentages of other ingredients that are not certified and may be from harmful sources. Fair World Project says this will let these products compete unfairly with those of companies such as Equal Exchange and Alter Eco that have most or all of their ingredients certified. "Currently brands are required to purchase as fair trade all ingredients available as such to use the seal in this way." Fair Trade USA says their "objective in developing standards for Fair Trade certification is to maintain the rigor for which the Fair Trade certification mark is known while creating additional opportunities to enable more farmers and workers reap the benefits of Fair Trade."
"Fair World Project has made several recommendations for how Fair Trade USA can change its labeling policy to allow for the entry of new companies without creating unfair competition and consumer confusion in the market." The recommendations include placing the percentage of fair trade certified ingredients up front and clear on a package's label and "increasing the threshold from 20% to 50% total fair trade ingredients before the fair trade seal can appear on the front panel".
Links to Controversial Issues
Pros and Cons of Fair Trade Coffee by the Organic Consumers Association
Organic Consumers Association criticism of TransFair certification organization; see also Organic Consumers Association criticism of TransFair name change
Criticism of Fair Trade USA (formerly TransFair USA) by Equal Exchange
Fair Trade USA's change in business model by Entrepreneur.com.
Links for Further Research and ActionIf you have comments or suggestions for other links, please email admin [at] responsibleconsumer.net with Fair Trade in the Subject line.
Green America's Guide to Fair Trade. This is a visually beautiful as well as informative site. Pages 21-32 show a Directory of Fair Trade products, with links to websites where they are available.
Fair Trade Federation; North American certifying organization
Green America's Fair Trade Your Supermarket campaign
Fair Trade News
Fair World Project works to protect the strength and integrity of the term fair trade.
An Alternative to Fair Trade
Coalition of Immokalee Workers Campaign for Fair Food