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Fair Trade Products: A Cool Way to Buy

Updated on November 6, 2017

Fair Trade: What Is It, and Why?

Fair Trade is a business model that promotes healthy relationships with producers in developing regions. The model is rooted in Post-World War II efforts in Europe and the U.S. to bring regional crafts to a wider market. Although many of the earliest pioneers were churches and missionaries, Fair Trade has since become a secular movement.

The Fair Trade model is based on cooperation between consumers and producers, working toward these goals:

  • Healthy international exchange based on fair business practices.
  • Producers are exposed to the world market, and are supported in their efforts to improve their businesses and increase their profits.
  • Worker-owned businesses are promoted.
  • Workers are paid a fair wage, suitable to their location. A region's minimum wage typically does not provide enough to live on. A living wage provides enough for basic food, clothing, shelter, education and healthcare. Under Fair Trade, workers receive at least their region's minimum wage -- but the goal is to pay a living wage.
  • Workers enjoy safe, healthy working conditions, and opportunities for promotion.

What Can I Buy?

Coffee, tea and chocolate are the best known items. But a vast array of foods, garments, handicrafts, housewares and flowers are also available. The list grows.

Sweet. But Maybe Too Expensive for Us Common Folk?

Actually, since Fair Trade Organizations work directly with the producers, middleman costs are cut drastically or eliminated altogether. Prices are market rate, and bargains do happen.

Quality of goods is generally excellent. Sustainable farming is encouraged, so many, but not all, of the agricultural products are organic -- if you're looking for organic goods, check the label.

On the business side, producers typically receive a higher percentage of the profit, since little or none of it goes to middlemen.

LOOK FOR THE LABEL! The Transfair label (above) can be found on Fair Trade foods. The Fairtrade label (below) is used for Fair Trade commodities.

From the Producer to You

Two types of Fair Trade organizations work with producers:

Organizational Evaluators screen and evaluate producers to make sure they are committed to the concept, values and goals of Fair Trade. Evaluators support producers in their efforts, either directly or by referral to other helper organizations and by promoting Fair Trade. The International Fair Trade Organization evaluates producers for consumers outside of North America. The North American evaluator is the Fair Trade Federation.

Product Certifiers assure consumers that products with their label are, indeed, Fair Trade. Major certifiers include FLO-CERT, which established the Fairtrade Standards, and Transfair.


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    • Marian Swift profile image

      Marian Swift 9 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      Hi, swag!

      I'm sorry to be so slow in replying. Holidays and other family stuff have interfered with the serious business of Hubbing.

      I hope to send a more detailed reply soon, but no -- no business model is perfect.

      Big boxes are the dream location for any producer (for better or for ill, and I lean toward ill).

      But there are also online, nonprofit and smaller Fair Trade distributors with a great track record as far as sales and longevity. Global Exchange is perhaps the prime example. I am also finding more Fair Trade beverages sold in independent cafes, etc., and some of those businesses were way ahead of Trader Joe's in seeking out Fair Trade products to sell.

      My main question is, indeed, are the producers benefiting from this system? And, if so, are they receiving all the benefits to which they should be entitled? I believe producers are selling more and earning higher profits with Fair Trade than without it. As to the second question, that's more complicated. Frankly I would need to do more research -- or be pointed to a good researcher -- before I could answer it with any confidence.

      In my experience, the quality of Fair Trade products is fully comparable to, and often superior to, that of conventional products.

    • swag profile image

      swag 9 years ago from London

      But you missed providing a balanced assessment of Fair Trade here. FT is not the panacea that it's originators made it out to be. Just take coffee, for example -- since the growth of Fair Trade coffee 17 years ago, half of the industry has argued that the FT system is worse than nothing at all.

      Some of the major problems with Fair Trade includes:

      1) FT pays a minimum to cooperatives, not farmers, etc. directly. Which means to participate, you must join a cooperative, pay into the certification fee system of FT, and hope the cooperative gives you profit sharing that will create a living wage where you live.

      2) Fair Trade says nothing about the quality of products. This was the very reason that Intelligentsia roasters made such a public split from FT in 2006: . Growers, and consumers, aren't rewarded for higher quality products. This is why, at least in coffee, systems like Direct Trade offer better coffee potential for consumers and higher than FT wages to farmers, etc.

      3) Fair Trade was designed for, and largely only works for, the Big Box stores. (And yes, we include Trader Joe's among the term "big box store".) Big box stores need copious amounts of product to uniformly fill the store shelves of their dozens/hundreds/thousands of outlets. This is where Fair Trade works best, because a store like Wal-Mart (the biggest purchaser of decaffinated FT coffee, btw) needs a means of validating their product on all their shelves. Meanwhile, many smaller retailers can work directly with smaller producers, not worry about keeping consistency and inventory over hundreds of stores, and provide them with benefits that go way beyond what little FT promises.

      4) As a result of 3), most Fair Trade labeling today has become a marketing strategy for big box stores rather than a real benefit to those laboring in the fields.

    • Marian Swift profile image

      Marian Swift 9 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      Thank you, Pam and Patty!

      Yes, this is the best sort of multi-tasking, and it's globalization done right.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 9 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      A very useful article about programs that really do some good, Thumbs up!

    • profile image

      pgrundy 9 years ago

      I love Fair Trade shops and products. Great hub! There's a shop called 10,000 Villages that is run by some generic church that features only fair trade products and nothing else. It's a wonderful place--you can do all you Christmas shopping there and feel like you actually helped somebody far away instead of adding to the world's problems.

    • Marian Swift profile image

      Marian Swift 9 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      Hello, SweetiePie & Lissie!

      SweetiePie -- Oh, yeah.  Trader Joe's is the best.  Love the prices, too.

      Lissie -- I didn't know eBay had fair trade, either.  I just tossed a capsule in there for fun to see what popped up.  Amazon surprised me too.

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 9 years ago from New Zealand

      I hadn't realised you could get fair trade stuff on ebay - they tend to be a great source of unusual Xmas presents

    • SweetiePie profile image

      SweetiePie 9 years ago from Southern California, USA

      Great hub! I love shopping at Trader Joe's because of the great variety of organic products, and many of these are fair trade. I hope I can go tomorrow actually.