We hear the term “fair trade” often, and we know that it’s associated with ethical labor, but what exactly does it mean? When did fair trade start taking off, and why is it important?
Here’s all you need to know about fair trade, its history, how you can vet businesses for fair labor practices and how you can support sustainable business models.
What is fair trade?
Fair trade is not a revolutionary concept: workers should be able to support themselves through fair work under fair labor laws. Unfortunately, this concept is not globally upheld, and many people do not enjoy the standard of fair pay and reasonable hours.
Unfair trade practices can exist in any industry and are upheld by brands right under our noses. Products from major chocolate companies have been found to use cocoa farmed with child labor in West Africa. While several popular clothing retailers still use sweatshops around the world to produce their clothing products. Dig into the coffee industry, the technology industry, the fresh produce industry and more, and you’ll find that unfair trade practices are more commonplace than you might think.
How does this translate to those real people who work in those very real conditions? In sweatshops, for example, workers are paid as little as $0.03 an hour for over a hundred hours of work per week. Oftentimes the air quality is poor, the temperature is extremely high and overall safety conditions are poor.
Fair trade is the practice of ensuring that trade between a developed country’s company and a developing country’s producer only happens if the workers are paid fairly. This means vetting sources and holding people accountable to ensure that workers have livable wages and safe working conditions, and that their immediate environments aren't being destroyed for the sake of profit.
A brief history of fair trade
Like we said, fair trade isn’t a brand new concept, but it’s only in the last 75 years or so that the concept has been brought into the public eye.
It all started in 1946 when Ten Thousand Villages (previously known as Self Help Crafts) began selling handmade goods from Puerto Rico in the United States. A few years later, SERRV International began trading with poor communities all across the southern hemisphere. In the United Kingdom, fair trade hit the public in the late 1950s when Oxfam began to sell handmade crafts made by Chinese refugees.
At the same time, developing countries were assembling to discuss international trade at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the second of which was held in Delhi in 1968. The message to come out of this conference was that “Trade not aid” was the route to equitable trade relations between developed and developing countries.
Early fair trade grew as handmade crafts and products were sold as a branch of development trade, in which developed countries purchased handmade goods in order to support disaster recovery efforts or poverty crises.
Arts and crafts were among the more common fair trade goods in these early days, as many local artisans and non-profits were connected to religious organizations and missionaries who interacted directly with the individuals who made them. It was only in 1973 that the first fairly traded coffee was imported from Guatemala to the Netherlands, and following its success and popularity, fair trade began to branch out further into the agricultural sector.
Two organizations were established in the 1980s to formally assemble the many independent fair trade organizations across the globe. The European Fair Trade Association, created in 1987, included 11 of the major fair trade groups in Europe, and the World Fair Trade Organization (established just two years later) covered the rest of the world.
The path to global fair trade is a long one and with today’s technology and easy access to information, it’s easier than ever to find out which organizations practice fair trade and, more importantly, which don’t. Here’s how you find out which products and companies hold Fair Trade Certifications.
How to find Fair Trade-certified businesses
The Fair Trade Certified seal is a label that companies can place on products that have proven to practice fair trade. Since 1998, over $830 million from fair trade purchases has been sent to the workers and farmers who are to thank for the products.
As noted above, check out the Fair Trade Certified website to find out where you can get fair trade clothing, food, technology and more!
How to support Fair Trade businesses
Supporting fair trade businesses means supporting real people, their families, their livelihoods and their environments. Here are some ways you can support the fair trade movement beyond just purchasing certified goods!
Shop fair trade products and food
This is the first and easiest step, as you’re likely to get a great, high-quality product while knowing that you’re doing some real good! This also means avoiding products that are not fair trade certified, since you have the power to give your business to the organizations with missions that matter to you!
Hold businesses accountable!
If you have a favorite brand that you love but isn’t fair trade-certified, then call them out on it! Send an email, call their customer service, write a letter, start a petition or contact your nearby fair trade stores to find out how you can support your local businesses on the path to fair trade!
Donate directly to fair trade organizations to support the infrastructure and livelihoods of those directly impacted by fair trade!
Get certified yourself!
If you are a business owner, then getting fair trade certified is a great step in the right direction! These are plenty of resources and support structures available to those seeking a sustainable seal on your products!
Good luck, and go do some good in the world!
Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/cocoparisienne