Fair trade workers in India

You may have first heard the term fair trade used in regard to coffee, but today, many years after the term was first coined, consumers are able to choose from a wide-range of fair trade products, and not only in their grocery stores. Goods officially classified as fair trade number nearly 12,000, with hundreds of more items being added to the growing list each year. Today, goods such as snack foods, beverages, flowers and plants, herbs and spices, products, apparel, accessories, even home goods and décor are making the list. There are even products you would never suspect to be on the list, like seafood and sports balls. We may soon see the fair trade certification on precious commodities like gold and diamonds. Let’s explore a little about how fair trade is helping create a sustainable living for those who benefit most from it.

History of fair trade

Fair trade actually got its start in 1946 when Edna Ruth Byler brought back to the U.S. exquisite lace, handmade by women living in extreme poverty in Puerto Rico. She became the eventual founder of Ten Thousand Villages, the largest fair trade retailer in the U.S. Fair trade is more than a social movement. It’s a way to build a sustainable way of life for millions who are on the outskirts of society, yet are the backbone of their economy.

What is fair trade?

That’s all pretty cool, but what does it mean when a product is considered part of the fair trade classification? Fair trade simply means that the products “help farmers and workers invest in their businesses and communities, earn fair wages, protect the environment and work in safe conditions,” according to Fair Trade USA, “a non-profit organization that promotes sustainable livelihood for farmers, workers, and fishermen, protects fragile ecosystems, and builds strong, transparent supply chains through independent, third-party certification.”

9 principles of fair trade

Fair trade is not a fad. Fair trade is a way to give those who are considered “marginalized” in their countries, often the poorest of the poor, an opportunity to earn a fair wage for their work, sell their goods for a fair price, and avoid being exploited for their labour. It aims to protect the environment from harmful, destructive, and exploitive practices. Fair trade is closely monitored. In fact, the World Fair Trade Organization and the Fair Trade Federation teamed up to adhere to nine principles that define fair trade:

  1. Create opportunities for economically and socially marginalized producers
  2. Develop transparent and accountable relationships
  3. Build capacity
  4. Promote fair trade
  5. Pay promptly and fairly
  6. Support safe and empowering working conditions
  7. Ensure the rights of children
  8. Cultivate environmental stewardship
  9. Respect cultural identity

It’s a way to help producers—the farmers, fishermen, workers, craftspeople—find a market to sell their goods, thereby helping them, their families and their communities. Fair trade provides them with the information and tools they need to work in a competitive environment, which would not necessarily happen in a free trade situation. In a free trade environment, people operate void of any government intervention. Free trade may sound like a good thing on the surface, but the reality is it can be detrimental to the small producers or those without access to resources because they cannot compete and often end up being taken advantage of. Fair trade evens the playing field.

Today, according to the Fairtrade Foundation, there are over 1.5 million farmers and workers in 1,210 fair trade-certified producer organizations in 74 countries. Here in North America, we’re seeing more and more fair trade-labeled products turn up in retail outlets, which is helping expand the reach of the fair trade movement. Check out the interactive Global Reach Map from Fair Trade USA to learn about some of the products and communities operating under the fair trade umbrella.

Fair Trade Reach Map

Global fair trade reach map

Is there anything about fair trade in this article that surprised you? Have you specifically sought out fair trade products before? Let us know your thoughts in the Comments.

image: arindambanerjee via Shutterstock