The movement for fair trade has come a long way since the days of “look for the label” campaigns. Today, fair trade certification has become part of the mainstream discourse, enshrined in companies’ Corporate Social Responsibility Programs. Further, certifications have become a de facto benchmark for what’s fair–for pricing, baseline working conditions, and more.

Yet more and more research and testimonies from the very people these labels are supposed to benefit are raising questions about the fundamentals of ethical labeling

While the common image of fair trade probably includes a smiling coffee farmer, the reality is fast changing. Other products, including those grown on large-scale farms and plantations, are outpacing traditional fair trade products in market growth.

This paper looks at the latest research on the impacts of ethical certification, as well as changes in the food system over the past decades, including increasing corporate consolidation, and the impacts that has had on attempts at market-driven change.

The paper concludes:

“Fair trade certification reveals the complications and inherent flaws of looking to a market-based, voluntary system to address the fundamental injustices of our food and trade systems that are built on 500 years of colonization and extractive capitalism. Without a deliberate effort to recognize the power dynamics inherent in these relationships, too often certification has helped replicate, and even reinforce, the dynamics between worker and boss, and between the so-called Global South (producers) and Global North (purchasers). The mechanics of exploitation rely on defining some people as expendable, putting their human rights and their humanity, below the goals of protecting profits and maintaining business as usual. Oppression based on race, gender, caste, national origin, and immigration status, to name just a few factors, helps to define these categories of marginalization. Adding more rules alone does not change the fundamental power dynamics.
This paper has focused on the flaws of certification, the critical weaknesses where well-intentioned programs are falling short, and even causing harm. Fundamental transformations are urgently needed to change our food, farming, trade, and economic systems to put food justice, racial justice, and climate justice at the center.”

Finally, the paper assembles recommendations for reforms of both certifications and better buying practices that could support the transformative change of the food system needed.


Looking Back, Looking Forward: Fair Trade Certification in 2022