Why Fair Trade Matters

fairtrade matters

Buying Fairtrade items seems to be a growing trend and for good reason. Here’s a look at why Fairtrade matters.

Child labour

Here is where I could open with a story of child labour. One that would really grab your attention, with sad details recounted by a teen who used to be a child labourer on a coffee plantation. Trust me; those stories exist. But I would rather not use someone else’s specific story of abuse to draw you into caring about this issue. I hope the facts I’ve researched and gathered from over 15 articles and studies will convey to you the importance and magnitude of why Fairtrade matters.

Forced labour and child labour have been identified in 75 countries around the world, according to the State Department’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. Forced labour/child labour in the coffee industry alone is found in 16 countries. Since Fairtrade originated in the coffee industry, let’s look at fair trade in that context.

Fair trade matters

Forced Labour and Debt Bondage

Although not on this list, Brazil is a hotspot for forced labour in the harvesting of coffee.

“Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of coffee, accounting for about one-third of the global market. Yet workers often face debt bondage, non-existent work contracts, exposure to deadly pesticides, lack of protective equipment, and accommodation without doors, mattresses or drinking water, a DanWatch report says. Such working conditions contravene Brazilian and international law,”

Many coffee labourers are drawn into exploitive situations by being forced to work to pay off “debts”. In a typical scenario, migrant workers are recruited with promises of good jobs and wages sufficient to support their families. They are then transported from their hometown to coffee plantations at the beginning of the coffee harvest. The journey may take several days. Upon arrival, they are told that they must pay back the cost of travel with their earnings. Their wages will not be paid until the harvest is complete three months later, but until then they can buy food on credit. This is how a debt spiral begins.

“The worker ends up in a situation in which he owes the plantation owner money, and therefore is obliged to keep working under these terrible conditions. He has no cash, and therefore cannot buy a bus ticket back to his hometown”, says Jorge Ferreira dos Santos Filho, coordinator of the organisation Articulação dos Empregados Rurais de Minas Gerais, known as Adere, which helps migrant workers report conditions analogous to slavery to the authorities,” reports DanWatch.

Additional cases of forced labour on coffee farms have been documented. Verite conducted research in Guatemala and found instances of forced labour. Corruption in government and loopholes in existing laws hamper efforts to combat forced labour there. Due to a high level of violence in the country,  a large number of labor inspectors do not carry out inspections because they fear that they will be threatened, hurt, or killed.

In Hawaii, four farms, including two coffee farms, have agreed to pay a combined $2.4 million directly to Thai farm workers as part of a labor and civil rights violations suit. “We worked and lived under terrible conditions, treated like animals in a cage. We were housed in an overcrowded place with a few rooms but many workers, and threatened almost daily,” Thai workers reported.

An Effective Solution

According to the San Francisco-based Global Exchange: “The best way to prevent child labor in the fields is to pay workers a living wage…. Most people in this country would rather buy a cup of coffee picked under fair trade conditions than sweatshop labor conditions….”

“It is also important to point out that buying fair-trade products is not the same as donating to help others. When it comes to the moral uses of money people often think of donating funds to the needy or those who are suffering. While donating to the needy is an important component of a moral life, fewer donations would be necessary if people were justly rewarded for the often very hard work they do. Ideally, no one should purchase fair-trade products with the idea that they are donating to improve the lives of coffee and cocoa growers. Buying fair-trade products is not “donating” to a cause, it is merely doing the decent thing: paying people a reasonable sum for the work that they are doing for you.”-TowardFreedom.com

The more we hear how foreign aid can cause more harm than good, the more we realize the value of things like Fairtrade.

Fair Trade Origins

“The Fair Trade movement began back in 1946 when a woman named Edna Ruth Byler began importing needlecrafts from low income women in South America.  She laid the groundwork for the first Fair Trade organization, the Mennonite Central Committee. Closely followed by SERRV International, in 1949, both organizations had a goal to develop fair trade supply chains in developing countries.  The products were almost exclusively handicrafts sold by volunteers in “Charity Stores” or “Ethnic Shops”.” (Source)

The modern fair trade movement grew in the U.S. and in Europe in the 1960s, and quickly gained popularity.  The movement built on an approach where price is directly linked to the actual production costs and where all producers are given fair and equal access to the markets.  The slogan, “Trade not Aid,” gained international recognition by 1968.

In 1973, Fair Trade Original in the Netherlands imported the first “fairly traded” coffee from cooperatives of small farmers in Guatemala. The first Fair Trade label appeared in 1988 when an NGO in the Netherlands that was working to ensure coffee growers received fair wages created a label for their products called Max Havelaar. The concept caught on: within a year, coffee with the label had a market share of almost three percent. (Source)


Before long, similar organizations arose, and in 1997 they formed an umbrella association called the Fair Trade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). A common Fairtrade logo was launched in 2002. Today, over 800,000 coffee farmers are enrolled in fair trade programs.

Fairtrade Requirements

Fairtrade requirements include a guaranteed minimum price for the good, as well as a fair trade premium for producers. Workers must have safe working conditions, and wages at least equal to the legal minimum for the region. Child labour is prohibited, and Fairtrade is one of the only certifications that has a formal system to actively address the discovery of child labor that goes beyond de-certification (more on that later). Farmers must form cooperatives and function democratically. The environment is also to be considered, and certain harmful chemicals and GMOs are prohibited.

Although not a perfect system, Fairtrade is proven to positively impact farmers, as well as their families and communities. “Studies generally find that Fair Trade farmers receive higher prices, have greater access to credit, perceive their economic environment as being more stable, and are more likely to engage in environmentally friendly farming practices,” states one Harvard paper.

This slideshow provides more information on various aspects of Fairtrade.

Fairtrade side effects

Besides the obvious effect of better wages for farmers, some of my favorite results of Fairtrade are reduced use of pesticides and an active system to address child labour.

fairtrade mattersWhen we think about pesticide use in farming, our primary concern is usually regarding the toxins we receive in our food. That is certainly a valid concern! But pesticide use is often another injustice toward farm workers.  They are exposed to dangerous levels of chemicals that have been banned in other countries, resulting in sickness, disease, and even death. This also has long-term effects on the environment, which in turn continues to harm the people living there.

Brazil, the largest exporter of coffee, is also the largest buyer of pesticides.  Thankfully, Fairtrade certification prohibits the use of many pesticides and has systems in place to encourage more sustainable farming practices. Many Fairtrade farmers also opt for organic certification, which further restricts pesticide use.

Fairtrade programs actively combat child labour. Rather than simply revoking a farm’s certification, which would likely promote more secrecy in the use of child labour, Fairtrade’s approach is both reactive and proactive. There are guidelines to help farms discourage child labour, as well as to address child labour when it is discovered. This includes “developing and funding remediation projects to address root causes and that seek to resolve the problem in the best interests of the child(ren) or impacted adult(s) involved, including initiating or participating in a program to enroll the child(ren) in quality education and assisting their family to access any available alternative means of income generation.” (Source)


There are many positive effects of Fairtrade. And when you purchase fair trade goods, you are communicating with your money that it matters to you that the things you buy are promoting good rather than harm. Money (demand) speaks louder than anything else to companies. Until all trade is fair, the best way to know that you are buying items that are not part of exploiting others is to look for a Fairtrade label.

Next week we will look into the various Fairtrade labels out there, what they mean, and how they differ.


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