October is a month worth celebrating—it’s Fair Trade month! Fair trade is about empowering the producers making the goods we use every day.
Artisans, farmers, or factory workers in a fair trade supply chain are paid a livable wage, and they have access to better job opportunities and community funds.
But what does it mean when a company has a fair trade seal on their products? Here’s what you’re supporting when you buy fair trade.
The values you’re supporting when you buy Fair Trade goods
Of course, fair trade means more than just fair wages and increased job opportunities. There are nine overarching principles to fair trade, as laid out by the Fair Trade Federation.
Create opportunities for marginalized producers
Fair trade businesses care about the interests and needs of their producers and their communities. Their producers are just as important as their revenue and profit margins.
Unfortunately, most regular companies put profit over people. As consumers, we are often searching for the best value. But if you aren’t paying more, then somebody else is. Usually, the “somebody else” is the worker who made your coffee, clothing, or artisanal good.
Fair trade companies usually take home less profit because they are paying their workers fairly. Companies that aren’t fair trade make more profit and sell you their goods for a lower price…but their workers aren’t paid well.
Develop transparent and accountable relationships
Fair trade businesses treat their producers as partners—not just in their marketing materials but also in how they do business together.
In treating their producers as partners, fair trade businesses help producers scale. Fair trade businesses rely on small cooperatives or even individual families of producers. They help these small partner businesses grow to hire more employees, fulfill more orders, and make more money. Fair trade companies also encourage their partners to work with other organizations to excel in their growth.
Promote fair trade
Fair trade businesses work to educate customers about the benefits of fair trade through their marketing, packaging, and storytelling.
Pay promptly and fairly
This is a vital principle of the fair trade movement. The “fair” part of fair trade is that producers, farmers, and artisans are paid a just, living wage for their work.
One part of this is that companies must pay their producers a deposit for their work before production begins. Sadly, this isn’t standard for non-fair-trade businesses.
In general, companies that aren’t fair trade don’t pay deposits, and they usually pay months after products are delivered! They make small producers front the money for raw materials and take on all the financial risk.
Support safe and empowering working conditions
Companies are responsible for ensuring that producers work in safe, clean environments. Right now, this includes providing personal protective equipment (PPE) at work.
Ensure the rights of children
Of course child labor isn’t okay for fair trade companies. They strictly follow the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Cultivate environmental stewardship
Companies have to source the raw materials sustainably, and the production must be eco-friendly. Producers reduce, reuse, reclaim, and recycle when possible.
Respect cultural identity
The way fair trade companies present their farmers and artisans’ stories has to be respectful and authentic.
Fair trade companies give credit where credit is due. Regular businesses often sell goods that rely on traditional artisanal techniques without giving credit, which is a form of cultural appropriation. This frequently happens with screen-printed versions of handcrafted products, such as Otomi weaving from Oaxaca, Mexico, and mudcloth from Mali.
How fair trade started
Later, in the 60s and 70s, there was a movement within the nonprofit space towards more equitable trade practices. At the UN Conference on Trade and Development In 1968, the delegation highlighted that the fair trade movement should be trade, not aid.
Different labels to look for: Fair Trade Certified vs. Fair Trade Federation Member
Getting Fair Trade certified can be a challenge, especially for companies that offer a variety of products. Certification happens at the factory or production level, not at the company level. Companies that want 100% fair trade goods must certify each and every producer, artisan, and farmer they buy from.
Certifying every producer can be an expensive and time-consuming process, which is why you might see certain products from a company with a Fair Trade Certified seal and others without. Goods from Fair Trade Certified producers carry the seal, while ones from other producers cannot.
In addition, companies also have the option to join the Fair Trade Federation. Companies are vetted by the Federation via self-reporting forms and pay membership fees based on sales.
How you can support the fair trade movement
1. Look for fair trade certifications like these:
2. Research companies to find out if they practice fair trade, even if they don’t have a certification
3. Ask your favorite stores to start carrying fair trade items
4. Shop at marketplaces that focus on fair trade
5. Research other ethical labels that can make an impact