Fair for Whom? Fair Trade Certification in the Context of the Fair Trade Movement

Fair trade labels are everywhere now: on your coffee and your tea, on your t-shirt, and your toothpaste. Yet on each of those products, the label means something a little different, even if it is the same label—and there are so many different labels to be found on store shelves.

New Report: Fairness for Farmers - Assessing Fair Trade Labels and the Role of CertificationOur new report, Fairness for Farmers: A Report Assessing the Fair Trade Movement and the Role of Certification, breaks down what each of the most common fair trade labels stands for, specifically examining their standards intended to benefit small-scale farmers. A point-by-point examination of certifications can be a trifle dry. Yet the differences we highlight go beyond the details of how a minimum price gets set or the calculation of the social premium that funds the farmer-led projects that are so vital to fair trade. 

How Fair is Fair Trade?

The report finds that major, fundamental differences are found in the standards of the six product labels that are described as fair trade. These differences include:

  • Requirements for democratic structures (including cooperatives and other farmer-led associations)
  • Prioritization of most marginalized producers
  • Policies to prevent “fairwashing,” such as use of the label by companies with active human rights abuses
  • Involvement of intended beneficiaries in defining what constitutes “fair” and setting minimum prices

From the beginning, the fair trade movement has been a solidarity movement by and for small-scale producers. The goal, or at least the original one: to shift the balance of power in supply chains by empowering producers and connecting them to solidarity markets. To what extent is product certification living up to this vision? That’s the big question that guides our evaluation of the labels.

Status Quo is Not Working for Small-Scale Farmers

In the past month, coffee commodity prices have plunged to lows not seen in a decade. Cocoa farmers continue to live in poverty, even as the biggest chocolate companies admit that yet another deadline to eliminate child labor in their supply chains will pass unmet. The situation is dire for the small-scale farmers who rely on these crops for their livelihoods. One of the findings that we highlight in the report is the high percentage of fair trade crops that go unsold, that is, fair trade producer organizations who are only able to sell a fraction of their crop under fair trade contracts despite having worked so hard to earn the certification.

By promoting strong fair trade certification standards and mission-driven brands we are working to change that, and we hope you’ll be joining us. Want to share just why we believe fair trade is so important? Our new fact sheet provides a resource to break it down—for you, your co-workers, your customers, and your families.

View Fact Sheet

View Full Report

This fall, we plan to draw on the findings of the report with new ways to engage, learn, and keep building a movement that seeks to transform the terms of trade. We hope you’ll be joining us!


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