How Fair is Fair Trade? A Look at Labels and What They Truly Mean

As I sit here, at 2:00pm on a Monday, drinking my 2nd, or 3rd, or 4th(?) cup of coffee, writing this blog entry for class, it only seems fitting that I incorporate coffee in some way. I’ve consumed plenty of coffee in my lifetime to have noticed a myriad of fair trade labels on copious bags of coffee beans, but what do they all mean? What does Fair Trade truly mean and is it actually fair for all actors involved?

To me, fair trade elicits an image of a farmer thousands of miles away on a small plot of land, harvesting coffee or cocoa. Cut to: a socially conscious 30-something year old perusing labels and determining which organic, fair trade coffee is the best. This is a gross overgeneralization of the fair trade industry, but it’s how the industry is generally portrayed.

Before taking a look at different fair trade labels, it’s important to know what fair trade truly is. In the most general sense, fair trade is defined as, “a movement whose goal is to help producers in developing countries to get a fair price for their products so as to reduce poverty, provide for the ethical treatment of workers and farmers, and promote environmentally sustainable practices.” The fair trade industry primarily consists of foreign-made products; however, a domestic fair trade market has been emerging in recent years. The assumption that only farmers in developing countries can benefit from the perks of fair trade is no longer the truth. For this reason, Fair Trade USA has begun certifying domestic farms to produce fair trade products, like the Wholesum Harvest farm in Nogales, Arizona.

Fair trade is an important practice because it establishes basic social, economic, and environmental standards in production and trade. Different fair trade labels have various requirements to fulfill these standards, but the premise is the same. Fair trade is meant to benefit and protect producers from exploitation. Currently, hundreds of products are made using exploitative labor, such as child labor and slave labor. Today alone, about 1,000,000 hours of labor will come from child labor, and an additional 65,000,000 hours of slave labor will be exploited from workers around the world. While Fair Trade practices can’t eradicate the millions of hours worked by exploited laborers, it does aim to reduce this harrowing number. Now, what are individual fair trade labels doing to ensure stability for the producers making the products?

This table aims to show how different fair trade certification labels compare to one another. Links to the various labels are found at the end of the document along with the products used for price comparison purposes. Credit: Author

The table above outlines some of the various aspects that are important when considering fair trade labels. The labels range in size from 40 farms to over 2,000,000 million farms. The products included in each fair trade label are relatively the same. Additionally, the types of standards and practices instituted in each label are more or less the same, which makes it even harder to determine which label is the “best,” This “Theory of Change” graphic from Fair Trade Certified provides a great summary:

This chart provides a summary of Fair Trade USA’s standards, which are similar to many other labels’ standards. Source: Fair Trade USA

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking, but Kasey, isn’t this supposed to incentivize me to support fair trade? You’re just confusing me!! Who should I support? Just hold on and I’ll (try) to clear things up.

All of these labels claim to be better for the environment and producers than non-fair trade coffee, and I agree. As you can see, all of them have standards that they aspire to and require. The row of the table that was most intriguing to me is the final one, the all important price of fair trade commodities. There are clear differences between Folger’s coffee, and fair trade coffee (although some are surprisingly comparable). So, what makes fair trade coffee worth the price?

When fair trade emerged in the 1980s, it brought the stories of impoverished farmers to the world stage. Now, 40 years later, the outcomes of fair trade certifications are coming to light. Although the framework is set up for success, many farmers are still in poverty and now many brands are pulling out of fair trade agreements. Individual brands now have the capability to introduce sustainable practices without the overhead of a fair trade agreement. This may be because as Colleen Haight points out, “Fair Trade’s chief legacy may be greater consumer awareness among coffee drinkers.” However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t success stories in the fair trade industry. You’re just a Google search away from uplifting stories as a result of fair trade purchases.

In conclusion, I encourage you, the next time you’re at the grocery story, to browse your favorite product’s labels and see if it is fair trade certified. I know that I generally try to find the biggest bang for my buck, because coffee is expensive! However, it is worth looking into products with fair trade labels. They may not be a cure-all for the world’s ills, but they have the potential to help a farmer thousands of miles away (or right here at home)!

Check out the fair trade labels highlighted throughout this piece:

Fair Trade America

Fair For Life

Fair Trade USA

Equal Exchange

Rainforest Alliance

Products used in the comparison table:

Kirkland Signature House Blend Coffee, Medium Roast, Whole Bean, 2.5 lb – $12.99

Nicaragua “Miraflor”- 2 lb – $30.95

Blue Heeler – 1 lb – $14.25

Organic Breakfast Blend Coffee – 12oz – $38.40

Bulletproof Original Medium Roast Ground Coffee -12oz – $14.99

Folgers Breakfast Blend Mild Light Roast Ground Coffee – 25.4oz – $6.59

-Posted by Kasey

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