What Exactly Does Fair Trade Mean?


When perusing the aisles of your supermarket, you're bombarded by all sorts of claims on packaging. Organic! Natural! Sustainable! Some of these terms are regulated, but many are not. "Fair trade," however, does actually carry some weight.

There are some basic principles that all fair trade goods must abide by. The production of these foods—the most common being cocoa, coffee, bananas, tea, and sugar —must be free of forced labor or poor working conditions for laborers. The crops are raised through sustainable methods, and no genetically modified crops are allowed to be certified Fair Trade. And perhaps most importantly, participating in a fair trade production chain can result in huge benefits for farmers.

"the producer and the consumer have a direct relationship, rather than operating through a faceless middle man"

Fair trade products have a "floor" price. This means that regardless of the market, the specified crops cannot be sold below a certain price. This protects small farms and underrepresented communities from falling prey to market fluctuations, and from being bought out by larger farms. Additionally, entire farming communities often engage in fair trade practices together, and make decisions about the future of their crops through a democratic process. Fair trade also carries with it an understanding that the producer and the consumer have a direct relationship, rather than operating through a faceless middle man.

Fair trade products have been growing in popularity in the U.S. in recent years. Since 1998, the U.S. has imported more than 400 million pounds of Fair Trade Certified coffee, resulting in about $200 million in additional profits for farmers in the origin countries. However, our per capita spending on fair trade goods is still vastly lower than many other developed countries. For example, the U.K. spends nearly $13 per person on fair trade goods annually, versus the United State's $2.50. However, the U.S. is second in overall retail sales on fair trade goods, with almost $1.2 billion spent in 2009. That's a lot of purchasing power.

Recently, high-power commercial brands have been jumping on the Fair Trade wagon. Starbucks serves a few fair trade brews; Cadbury recently switched to fair trade chocolate, in a $90 million deal with Ghanaian farmers, just in time for socially conscious Easter eggs. Even McDonald's has jumped on the bandwagon, selling 100% fair trade coffee—though interestingly, they do not advertise this fact anywhere on their website. As big-name brands start seeing the value in fair trade, the brand's recognition among consumers increases along with its growth potential.

Fair trade is not without some flaws. For instance, if a producer network seeking fair trade certification contains dozens or even hundreds of farmers in a co-operative network, auditors allow for a "group certification" rather than inspecting every farm individually. This can let poor labor or ecological practices slip through the cracks. Additionally, reports have been mixed on how much of a relationship is really developed between producer and consumer in the fair trade model. Though a direct purchasing method is encouraged, geographical and cultural barriers sometimes interfere with this process.

World Fair Trade Day is coming up on May 14. Fair Trade USA, the regulatory arm of the FLO in the U.S., is encouraging us all to have a fair trade breakfast—featuring coffee, sugar, bananas, and other certified products. It seems that increased exposure and label recognition is a high priority for fair trade certifiers. Because once people begin to understand the nuances behind the little sticker on their bag of coffee beans, they may call for an even wider selection of fair trade goods.

How do you feel about fair trade, eaters? Do you go out of your way to purchase fair trade certified products?