What Fair Trade is and what it isn’t

“Fair Trade isn’t perfect.”

This statement came from someone I was conversing with about consumer choices and doing less harm with them. And I agree with them. At the same time, just saying that Fair Trade isn’t perfect overlooks what Fair Trade is. So let’s talk about the things that Fair Trade is–and the things it isn’t.

What Fair Trade is

Fair Trade is a redistribution of power. The Fair Trade movement came about because there were huge differences in the quality of life between producers and artisans in the Global South and those in the Global North. In other words, countries like Canada were depending on developing countries to provide produce and other products and were expecting a certain price point, regardless of the human toll that might take. So Fair Trade was developed in response to that. It is a recognition that all human beings are worthy of respect, a safe work environment, and a wage that will allow them to meet their basic needs.

When Fairtrade International is making major decisions, 50% of the votes go to producers in the Global South. This is a redistribution of power, and something that you won’t see in the conventional system. Nobody was consulting low-income farmers in the Global South when NAFTA was put in place, for instance. Those farmers were silent and invisible in that process.

Fair trade is supporting alternative agriculture models. Instead of huge, multi-national corporations owning land that may well have displaced indigenous folks in a land grab, Fair Trade farms are small-scale, family-owned and typically part of a cooperative model. The conventional plantation model means a workforce comprised mostly of hired labour whose main concern (and understandably so) is getting a pay check. They are typically paid very little, and in some cases, workers are trafficked (especially in the cocoa industry, where trafficked child labour is a very serious and prevalent problem). These workers are fighting tooth and nail to survive, so they are not usually concerned with the quality of the product, the efficiency of the work they do, or the health of the environment.

On the other hand, cooperative models make farmers owners as well, meaning that the more efficient and in touch with the environment the farm is, the more the cooperative’s farmers stand to gain in terms of increased profits and a safer community for their families. When Fair Trade producers are part of successful cooperatives, communities become more prosperous in general, as the economy gets a boost and the Fairtrade Premium is often invested in programs that benefit future generations and the broader community.

Fair Trade is in support of small producers and small businesses. Instead of encouraging the support of multinationals that often unethically acquire land overseas, Fair Trade leaves the production of produce where it ought to be: in the hands of small producers that live in harmony with their local environment. Large companies that grow their own produce in a plantation setting will clear-cut acres of land, demolishing habitat for wildlife and wreaking havoc on the area’s natural biodiversity. They usually grow monocultures (that is, single crops), which doesn’t help with plant biodiversity, either. They will hire many workers who have very little stake in the wellbeing of the land.

Fair Trade smallholders typically live on the land they farm, often having inherited the farm from their parents, who inherited it from their parents, and so on. They simply have more to lose if the land becomes infertile or unsafe to live on. You are much less likely to use toxic chemicals that will poison the local water sources if you know your children will be drinking out of them.

Sometimes folks will ask about supplying the demand of companies that use the produce to make their products. The good news is that Fair Trade cooperatives are often large enough to collectively meet the demand of bigger purchasers, meaning that they can sell to buyers who would conventionally only be able to have their demands met by large plantations. It makes a world of difference to small producers who would otherwise have no real bargaining power or ongoing buyer relationships, and have to rely on very competitive local markets instead.

What Fair Trade isn’t

Fair Trade isn’t necessarily organic certified. This is a major point of confusion for folks who aren’t immersed in Fair Trade information 24/7. Fair Trade and organic certifications, while often going hand-in-hand, are not the same thing. Fair Trade certification has environmental standards, but it focuses even more on labour standards. Organic certification mostly looks at the environmental impact of production, more or less leaving the social impact out of it. So of course there are benefits to both: Fair Trade certification vigorously defending human rights, and organic certification strictly monitoring environmental impact. The best choice is to look for products that are both Fair Trade and organic certified, because then you get the best of both worlds. And that’s fairly easy, because according to Fairtrade Canada, half of the companies that are Fairtrade Certified are also organic certified.

Should Fair Trade match organic with its environmental standards? Maybe. But it’s not specifically what it set out to do, and Fairtrade International has historically tended to focus on making sure that its human rights protections are as strong as possible before clamping down on specifically environmental protections–and it’s up to individual consumers to decide if they’re OK with that or not. For my own part, I’m more than happy to buy Fair Trade, organic products and let each certification do what it’s best at.

Fair Trade isn’t a political advocacy group. It’s not campaigning to change policy in Canada, overseas or anywhere, really. It is a consumer movement. It is a movement that doesn’t really need policy change to be successful, because it is about relationships between producers and consumers. As long as policy doesn’t get in the way of trade in general, Fair Trade and policy have very little to do with one another. More than anything else, it focuses on the power consumers have with the dollars they spend–something that, in my opinion, is very clever and focused on entirely too little in the grand scheme of things. Hitting large companies in their wallets is about as political as you can get, and you don’t need to petition the government to do it.

Fair Trade isn’t a fix-all (or even long-term) solution. Everyone who works deeply in Fair Trade understands that it does what it can with a bad situation. Capitalism in itself is a very violent system with regard to how it interacts with a lot of different parties, and it is not sustainable for us to continue to consume the way we are in the Global North. And perhaps the greatest shortcoming of Fair Trade is that it doesn’t directly address the idea of just consuming less. Sure, it’s great if I buy that beautiful purse that was hand-crafted by a Fair Trade women’s cooperative in Nepal, but if I already had 10 purses at home that work just fine, did I really make a positive impact with my purchase? Consuming more than we need to is something that we’ve been trained to do, but it’s long since time to break that habit.

There are also massive, intentional disparities that exist between various groups of people, and capitalism maintains these power dynamics. Many who do gender work have asked if Fair Trade does enough to ensure gender equity, and it begs the question: is that Fair Trade’s job? If it isn’t, then surely it’s someone’s, and so it becomes very clear quite quickly that Fair Trade is not a complete solution to the world’s socioeconomic problems.

In Fair Trade’s defense, what it does, it does very well. No other consumer movement so successfully shifts the power from the large multinationals to small producers and small businesses, and at a time when even political leaders are essentially owned by corporations, that is worthwhile work. But as with anything, it is important to think critically and deeply about the movements we support, and understand where gaps lie so that we can push to continually improve these movements that we hold so dear.

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