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In All Fairness

by: Kent Schneider 10/16/08

Along with “Green”, “Eco-Friendly”, and “Sustainable”, “Fair Trade” seems to be a term that gets utilized quite a bit these days whether it is on the side of a coffee can or the back of a chocolate wrapper.  We thought it might be useful to learn a little more about this label/movement.

The basic idea of Fair Trade is one of connecting producers (rural workers and craftsman) with viable markets (you and me). And the goal is to achieve this in the most efficient and transparent way possible to ensure that those producers:

  • Receive a fair wage for the work they produce
  • Work in conditions that are safe and hazard free
  • Learn the business skills necessary to compete in the global economy
  • Produce goods sustainably to ensure the resources they utilize will survive for generations to come. 

According to Wikipedia Fair Trade can be defined as:

“an organized social movement and market-based approach to empowering developing country producers and promoting sustainability. The movement advocates the payment of a fair price as well as social and environmental standards in areas related to the production of a wide variety of goods.”


The current fair trade movement seems to have found its footing in and around Europe in the 1960’s as a grass roots way of attempting to help third world nations by empowering the working class with capital .  Initial Fair Trade efforts focused on seeking specialized channels of distribution for Fair Trade goods.  As a result of this effort, so called “Worldshops” opened and became the destination for those seeking Fair Trade goods and wishing to support the movement.  While this method of distribution brought attention to the cause, theses specialized outlets lacked the broad appeal of mass distribution.  Enter the certification label.  In the late 1980’s in response to a sharp decline in coffee prices the first certification label was created (so called Max Havelaar label after a fictional Dutch character who opposed the exploitation of coffee pickers in Dutch colonies ).  By creating a certification process and label that branded a product as “fair trade”, the movement was able to move out of small specialty shops and into the mainstream.

The success of this first Fair Trade label brought about the creation of many more, which naturally led to confusion in the marketplace.  In 1997 FLO (Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International) was established as a governing body to set forth standards for the varying labels (referred to as Labeling Initiatives).  In 2002 FLO created its own label, the International Fairtrade Certification Mark in an attempt to consolidate all marks into single recognizable symbol.  However many individual Labeling Initiatives (such as TransFairUSA and TransFairCanada) still maintain a separate logo and work alongside FLO to ensure guideline compliance .

How it works:

Fair Trade products are general brought to market in one of two ways.  The first is the “supply chain” method whereby goods are produced, distributed, and sold through a common organization whose goal is to enhance the living standards of the worker and promote fair trade. The second and more common today is the “certification” method whereby goods are certified by one of many third party independent sources as complying with a set of underlying goals.  These goods are then allowed to use the certification mark which in theory will garner a premium over non certified products.

Fair Trade Today:

The idea of Fair Trade has grown substantially in the years that have followed its inception.  In order to learn a bit more about the challenges facing Fair Trade today we spoke with Barkha Malik of Barkha’s Custom Sourcing LLC.  Barkha has been working directly with rural crafts people (primarily in India) for over 15 years.  She specializes in facilitating the creation of unique textiles for use in both residential and commercial settings.  We asked Barkha about the obstacles confronting rural crafts people and the role she plays in bringing the goods to market.  According to Barkha, “the greatest hurdle for the rural crafts people is probably the lack of education. This leads to exploitation of their talent by their employers.  They often do not earn enough to make anything close to a decent living for their families.  Lack of education also leads to ignorance about all the options that might be available to them through government funding programs or other avenues etc…which can get them out of the ill-paid jobs they are trapped in.”  According to Barkha, markets exist in which many of the goods produced can be very valuable, “it is the logistics of getting their goods out to those ‘markets’ that is daunting for these native artisans”.   Barkha sees her role as one who helps facilitate this.  In order to do so she says that communication is the key.  “Advances in technology have definitely made this work a lot easier than it was when I did my first custom project almost 15 years ago.  Email and cell phones have made for much faster communication as compared to black/white faxes and waiting days for courier packages to arrive before approving textile patterns etc. Skype is another great way of international communication which is very economical and very popular even with small artisan groups in remote corners of the Himalayas who can log on from internet enabled computers in their local village marketplaces.”

Future of Fair Trade  

With the increasing awareness among consumers about sustainability and environmental issues it stands to reason that products produced under Fair Trade conditions may continue to enjoy acceptance and growth in the marketplace. According to FLO, 2007 saw a 47% increase in the sale of Fairly Traded goods to about $3.6 billion worldwide.  If this growth is sustained Fair Trade items may someday become the standard rather than a niche brand.


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