Local Peace Economy

Do Fair Trade Labels Actually Mean Anything?

How to know if what you’re purchasing helps that poor person of color in the brand’s marketing.

Photo Credit: Korta/Shutterstock

If you consider yourself a conscious consumer, you might have stood before the chocolate section at your Whole Foods, reading label after label of “fair trade” logos, and wondered, what the heck do all these different certifications mean?

If you asked yourself that—you’re correct to wonder. There are dozens of “fair trade” logos slapped on products, and some are as empty as you might suspect.

But there are some certifications that do mean something, like no child labor was used in the creation of the product (ahem, fast fashion brands like Adidas and H&M).

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Here’s a basic primer on “fair trade” to help you shop smarter, and bring more meaning to your purchases.

What “Fair Trade” Usually Means

We say “usually” because, well, merely using the words doesn’t mean the company adheres to all the principles of fair trade. According to Fair World Project, the principles of fair trade are:

  • Long-Term Direct Trading Relationships
  • Payment of Fair Prices
  • No Child, Forced or Otherwise Exploited Labor
  • Workplace Non-Discrimination, Gender Equity and Freedom of Association
  • Democratic & Transparent Organizations
  • Safe Working Conditions & Reasonable Work Hours
  • Investment in Community Development Projects
  • Environmental Sustainability
  • Traceability and Transparency

By meeting these points, a company is demonstrating their support for localized sustainability—not just environmentally, but also by ensuring workers are compensated justly across the supply chain, from the remotest parts of the world to your store. Fair trade principles should be found encompassing many of the products you purchase regularly, from produce, coffee, tea, and chocolate to non-food items like clothing.

“Fair trade” designation is especially helpful for those consumers unwilling or unable to purchase products from local farmers, regenerative fiber cooperatives, etc.

How “Fair Trade” Is Measured

There are two primary ways “fair trade” companies are measured: By third-party auditors and certifiers, and by member organizations.

Member organizations have companies that join and say they are “fair trade,” and perhaps meet some, or even all, of the criteria for fair trade. However, there isn’t always an on-the-ground auditing process to ensure these “members” of fair trade organizations are, in fact, meeting all those criteria, and there might not be an on-the-ground audit of what’s happening with their products in the home countries, such as in rural Guatemala, or Zimbabwe.

Certifiers provide a third-party audit of an entire company’s supply chain related to the product or company seeking “certified” fair trade status.

A company can be “certified” but not a “member,” and vice versa.

Some certifier labels to look out for:

Fair for Life (FFL): This label is issued by Ecocert, and according to the Fair World Project, has “strong eligibility requirements with a focus on marginalized producers.”

Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) and Fair Trade Certified: While this organization seems at one time to have been highly regarded, they are no longer endorsed by Fair World Project. FWP cites the organization ignoring concerns from small farm producers as well as falling short on living wage requirements.

Fairtrade International (FLO) and FairtradeAmerica: This multi-member association of more than two dozen affiliated organizations works to develop fair trade standards, experts, and helps everyone from small producers to government bureaucracies understand and cultivate fair trade principles. They also have their own constitution.

Some membership-based labels to watch out for:

Fair Trade Federation is North American–oriented and devoted to “building equitable and sustainable trading partnerships and creating opportunities to alleviate poverty.”

World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO): This organization is “the only global network whose members represent the Fair Trade chain from production to sale,” according to Fair World Project.

Fair World Project is a comprehensive place to learn more about fair trade and its certifiers and meanings—especially since one of their primary purposes is “to keep eco-social terms meaningful.” That’s an important point and no easy task—just look at how everything from “handcrafted” to “natural” to “organic” has been corrupted.

The important takeaway is that some of those labels you’re seeing are more meaningful than others. Read them! Research them! And when you’re trying to evaluate the quality of a company, take a moment to learn about them, and avoid the ones who contribute to child labor, slave wages, and toxic work environment. Also: It’s not just about certifications. There’s a good chance your local farm is good on all points—but absolutely unable to afford proper certifications. Shopping local, where you can know your farmer and food sources, is always a good choice.

And, you can advocate in your community with your local co-ops, clothing and grocery stores for more, and genuine, fair trade products.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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Valerie Vande Panne is an Independent Media Institute writing fellow who contributes to Columbia Journalism Review and Reuters news service, among other outlets. She is the former editor-in-chief of Detroit's alt-weekly, the Metro Times, and the former news editor of High Times magazine. She is the founder of Blackbird Literacy, an organization providing books to residents and literacy programs in Detroit. Connect with her on Twitter @asktheduchess.