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Know Your Climate Talk: What is ‘Fair Trade’

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

In a series of articles exploring environmental buzzwords and scientific terms, we break down in a nutshell how these terms relate to sustainable living. This week, Cass Hebron explores the phrase ‘fair trade’, a concept working towards equality and making the global supply chain more sustainable.

When you hear ‘climate talk,’ the concept of Fair Trade might not be the first thing to spring to mind. However, the movement that works to ensure better trading conditions, trade justice, and equity across the global supply chain has more to do with sustainability than many realise. 

Fair Trade is not just the movement behind the product stickers but an entire network of organisations and individuals committed to a trading system that is sustainable and fair: and when economic and social sustainability form two key tenets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, it’s worth taking the time to delve into them and learn how they all work together. So what actually is Fair Trade?

Many people in the UK hear ‘fair trade’ and immediately think of the Fairtrade International stickers that appear on bananas, coffee, chocolate and a few other supermarket items. This is how many consumers interact with the Fair Trade movement on an everyday basis, happy to pay a little extra with the general understanding that it means the farmers ‘get paid fairly.’ However, Fairtrade International – the organisation behind the stickers –  is part of a much larger Fair Trade movement that is united, broadly speaking, by their shared Fair Trade principles (check out the cool picture below).

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Fairtrade international stickers are part of a much bigger network

Fair Trade is a partnership underpinned by the principle that trade should put people and planet first, and that this business model is possible. Among other things, it does this by working on ensuring greater transparency across the supply chain (this means that companies and consumers are fully aware of where products and their ingredients have come from, and the working conditions of those involved in each step of the production and distribution of the product), supporting producers and demonstrating the commercial success of business models that support fair trade principles.

So, where does the sticker fit in all this? Well, Fairtrade International is the organisation responsible for certifying specific commodities as adhering to a set of Fair Trade criteria. What are the criteria? The exact list depends on the product and the size of the producer but broadly speaking, for a product to be certified Fair Trade, it has to:

1. Come from a small-scale democratically run producer organisation 

2. Producers must be part of a cooperative that allows them to vote in a democratic and transparent way on the management of their organisation

3. Salaries must be at or higher than the minimum wage

4. Be produced under safe and fair working conditions

5. Be part of the Fairtrade Climate Standard, which is a project to allow small-scale producers to contribute to the mitigation of climate change

On top of that, Fairtrade products pay a Fairtrade Premium, which is an additional sum that goes to the cooperative to strengthen the local economy. This is why Fairtrade products cost slightly more at the supermarket.

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Fairtrade produce costs slightly more at the supermarket

The Fair Trade movement also encompasses the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO). The WFTO is a network of producers and professionals across the trading chain that are committed to fair trade principles in their business model. These businesses and social enterprises are mission-led: this means that they are run with the focus on ensuring trade justice and transparency rather than profit.

So that all sounds great, you might say, but what has this got to do with sustainability? Well, paying a fair wage and ensuring the working conditions are decent isn’t just good for the people – and you know, a basic human right – but also encourages local economies to grow, and a market that values paying extra for social justice rather than searching for the lowest selling price possible.

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What social justice issues are behind staples like coffee?

Conventional business models seek to maximise profit and minimise loss: this means searching for the cheapest means of production and the most competitive price in the shops. However, the cheapest means of production is cheap for a reason: it’s not built to last. Large-scale farms are often poorly managed, lack transparency in their working conditions or their standards of production, and are unlikely to adhere to environmentally friendly practises.

Additionally, supporting farmers being paid a fair wage is more than a nice thing to do. It promotes the local economy and cuts through the cycle of poverty that prevents farmers from accessing the most up-to-date farming equipment and matching fluctuating market demands and keeps children out of school because they’re needed on the farm. It also allows cooperatives to develop more sustainable economies where they can negotiate higher market prices rather than be forced to accept unfair conventional prices.

On top of this, the poorest in the world are at the greatest risk from climate change. This is because the agricultural industry depends heavily on climate conditions and good harvests. In an unstable climate they risk losing their crops to flood, drought, disease and war. By investing in farming cooperatives, they have the ability to invest in more resilient farming techniques and be less vulnerable to fluctuations in the weather. Without reliable harvests, food availability also becomes unpredictable, so it’s vital that we promote global cooperation to share knowledge and technological skills to prevent this.

Fair Trade goes far beyond an ethical business model. Trade is fundamental to our current society’s economy and in our current climate crisis we have to make sure that both local and international trade are sustainable for the long-term. This requires ensuring that everyone in the supply chain is paid fairly, that we are transparent about the journey our food and products have taken and what they consist of, and that consumers are willing to pay a price that reflects the true value of a product. So if you feel like helping save the planet and prevent child labour, poverty and social injustice all in one go – head to your nearest supermarket* and buy a Fair Trade banana today. 

*The Co-op supports Fair Trade and stocks only Fairtrade bananas, as well as a wide range of Fair Trade products in other categories. You can find a list of where to buy Fairtrade products on the Fairtrade Foundation website, and WFTO also has an index of social enterprises you can support.

About the author: Cass Hebron is the founder of Wild Magazine and a recent graduate of BA English Language and Linguistics at the University of York. 

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