Fair Trade - what is it and where did it all start?

Fair tradeAfter years as a niche market, the concept of ‘fair trade’ seems to have finally broken through into the mainstream, with most of the major supermarkets now stocking these lines. The fair trade market has grown massively in recent years with new product ranges being added all the time. There are now thousands of fair trade products available in the UK - everything from bags and clothing, to teas, coffee to wine, flowers, biscuits, fruit juices, chocolates, snack bars, muesli and even footballs.


It appears that growing numbers of consumers are prepared not only to buy fair trade products but also to pay a little bit more for the privilege. Some have even suggested that it would be more logical to label unfair products.


True, fair trade products are still in a minority and will probably remain so whilst the current economic climate persists. Then there is cynicism, with a perception amongst some that it is a con, that the money doesn’t get to the producers, that manufacturers are using it as a smokescreen to charge more.  A few die hard cynics have even compared fair trade to charity Christmas cards – that you pay a little extra cash and clear your conscience in the process.


The majority view, however, is that the growth of fair trade serves the common good and is a route by which poverty, ignorance and unfairness can be reduced across the globe. It can also be a platform upon which a more sustainable global economy can be built, empowering women through education and reducing birth rates, protecting endangered species and helping to preserve the Earth’s delicate eco-system.

Does Fair Trade really make a difference?


All the companies listed in the Green Providers Directory adhere to fair trade principles.


"When people become economically empowered, they gain political and social power. Many of the groups that we work with do more than just produce crafts; they're involved in community development, health and education. For the women we work with, the effect is even greater. As they gain employment, they become able to leave abusive situations, to seek legal assistance, to acquire education, to become independent. Their work allows them to be economically significant in the family and gives them leverage to be considered an equal ." - Bob Chase, executive director, SERRV International


What is fair trade?
There is no universally agreed definition of what ‘fair trade’ means. However, it is generally regarded as a concept which allows producers from poorer countries to receive a fair price for goods and services in addition to decent working conditions. Many definitions go beyond this simple concept to encompass sustainability, workers’ rights and security.


For example, according to the International Fair Trade Association (IFAT), fair trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers.


Other groups, such as The Fairtrade Foundation, Oxfam and Traidcraft agree the following definition of fair trade: Fair Trade is an alternative approach to conventional international trade. It is a trading partnership which aims at sustainable development for excluded and disadvantaged producers. It seeks to do this by providing better trading conditions, by awareness raising and by campaigning.


Where did it all begin?

As early as the 1930s Franklin Roosevelt remarked that goods produced under conditions which do not meet a rudimentary standard to decency should be regarded as contraband and not allowed to pollute the channels of international commerce. Roosevelt went on to say that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue.


Later, the idea of fair trade originated in the 1940’s with some shops and church groups in the US and Europe selling products made by Chinese refugees or poor Puerto Rican communities. Back then, such initiatives were referred to as ‘Alternative Trade Organisations’. These groups were small and unstructured, operating in many different countries, but they formed the basis of what we now know as ‘fair trade’. Early fair trade products included crafts, gifts and sugar.


“Before you finish eating your breakfast this morning you've depended on half the world. This is the way our universe is structured? We aren't going to have peace on earth until we recognise this basic fact.” - Martin Luther King Jnr.



Is fair trade a charity?

In a word, no. Fairtrade is not about charity - if producers are paid a fair price for their products, they do not need charity. By changing to Fairtrade certified products you can make a real difference to the lives of workers and farmers in developing countries.


"A bite of fair Trade chocolate means a lot to farmers in the South. It opens the doors to development and gives children access to healthcare, education, and a decent standard of living." -  K. Ohemeng-Tinyase, Managing Director of Kuapa Kokoo cocoa cooperative, Ghana



How do I know if something is fair trade?

Look for the FAIRTRADE Mark. The FAIRTRADE Mark is an independent product certification label, licensed by the Fairtrade Foundation, the independent certification body in the UK and a not-for-profit organisation.


When you buy any item with the FAIRTRADE Mark it guarantees that the people who produced it earn decent wages, have minimum health and safety standards, that they receive a fair and stable price and a social premium for the community, benefit from a long-term trading relationship with a commitment to better environmental standards and the right for workers to join a union.


"The fair price is a solution. It has given us the chance to pay a good price to our farmers. Those who are not in Fair Trade want to participate. For us it is a great opportunity. It gives us hope." - Benjamin Cholotío



Does fair trade cost more?

According to the Fair Trade Resource Network, fairly traded products generally don’t cost more than other goods because the large percentage taken by middle people is removed from the equation. The cost remains the same as traditionally traded goods; however, the distribution of the cost of the product is different.


A fair price for goods is calculated based on the effort put into making a product or growing produce, and based on other factors such as the estimated living wage in different regions of the world. Fair trade products cannot cost the same as traditional goods on a like-for-like basis because they are produced under different conditions and this is reflected in the price.


There is a false perception that fair trade goods are expensive, which isn’t true. Fair trade products are priced competitively and fairly. As a consequence, you shouldn’t expect to pay much more for fair trade products.


"Fair Trade is a market-based, entrepreneurial response to business as usual: it helps third-word farmers developing direct market access as well as the organizational and management capacity to add value to their products and take them directly to the global market. Direct trade, a fair price, access to capital and local capacity-building, which are the core strategies of this model, have been successfully building farmers' incomes and self-reliance for more than 50 years." - Paul Rice, TransFair USA



Is fair trade the same as eco-friendly and organic?

Fair trade cotton can be eco-friendly and organic but may not be in all cases. Many organisations are striving to put them on the same footing so that fair trade and sustainability go hand in hand. However, some marginalised farmers who cannot afford to convert to organic farming or lack the knowledge about organic agriculture. It can take years to convert a crop to organic, but it is something many fair trade farmers are working towards as they receive an even higher price if their produce is organic.


Fair trade maintains very strong and clear environmental standards based on the international recommendations of the UN Environment Programme, such as the strict control of chemicals and reductions in pesticides because they can be harmful to the farmer’s environment as well as their own health. Fair trade also encourages sustainable farming so farmers establish their own environmental development plans to ensure that where possible, waste is managed, materials are recycled, and steps are taken to avoid soil erosion and water pollution.


"Fair Trade supports some of the most bio-diverse farming systems in the world. When you visit a Fair Trade coffee grower's fields, with the forest canopy overhead and the sound of migratory songbirds in the air, it feels like you're standing in the rainforest." - Professor Miguel Altieri, Leading expert and author on agroecology




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