Fairtrade & Fair Trade

Two weeks ago we were busy with events for Fairtrade Fortnight (26 Feb – 11 Mar 2018). During that time I came across this excellent article which I would like to share with you.


Using the Fairtrade Mark.   by Robin Roth,  Traidcraft Chief Executive.

In 2017 we have seen a number of announcements from various brands, retailers and traders that they are moving away from the Fairtrade Mark. This is a shame and we should continue to support those mainstream companies that are bringing Fairtrade labelled products to the mass market, and so starting their journey about what real fair trade means. For Traidcraft and other 100 per cent fair trade companies and pioneers however, focusing on a label misses a fundamental point in the origins of fair trade. Fair trade was all about partnerships with people: it was not about certifying products. It should not be forgotten that fair trade began well before standards, certifications, labels, monitoring and impact assessments were even thought of. Traidcraft was formed in 1979, the label introduced in 1992. As a dedicated fair trade company with these principles running through our DNA, all our products are fair trade, but many don’t carry the Fairtrade Mark. These include those that we sold before the label came along as well as the handicraft items Traidcraft has sold over the last 4 decades where we use the WFTO mark. Our Palm Oil from Serendipalm, is certified “Fair for Life” by the Swiss organic certifier I.M.O, because no “Fairtrade standards” yet exist. In truth, the Fairtrade label is limited to a relatively small number of raw commodities, or easily identifiable products, like tea, coffee and bananas, but it does not include most of the things we actually buy on a daily basis. For all its limitations the Fairtrade label is actually a brilliant idea: simple, understandable and credible. It is simple because it captures a degree of certainty in highly complex supply chains with a single, easily identifiable graphic. It is understandable because there is an implied promise behind that graphic that says something about decent wages, fair price and decent working conditions. And it is credible because there is an independent certifier who checks out the claims. This is an important principle for any organisation making ethical claims. As far back as the early 90’s, before the Fairtrade label had become established, Traidcraft was a pioneer in social accounting, reporting on its impact and having its findings independently verified. The reality behind fair trade, however, is anything but simple. Many of the companies no longer using the Mark are right to hint at this – for example citing the anomalous situation of a large multinational having a couple of fair trade product lines which gives them a consumer boost, whilst they continue to avoid tax, destroy the environment or treat workers in an appalling fashion. Few consumers have the time for this level of complexity when it comes to buying a pack of tea. And herein lies the problem. Fair trade is complex. It was never a single idea, and depending on whom you talk to, the core emphasis varies. For some producers, price is an important issue, but not more so than solidarity with trading partners, establishing land rights, access to pre-finance, long term relationships and a level playing field when competing with multinationals. In some cultures and environments, fair trade is simply incomprehensible if not aligned with organic production, and in the United States, an understanding of fair trade might just as much include working with migrant labour in the plantations of Southern California, as it does with coffee cooperatives in Guatemala. The standards that form the basis of the Fairtrade label are good, but they are not perfect, and certainly not all encompassing, which is why other standards, and other labels have emerged. At Traidcraft, as among most European fair trade organisations, we acknowledge the value of a number of fair trade standards as well as the Fairtrade Mark;

  • Fairtrade Mark – Product focused, fair trade but not Organic, based in Germany, stakeholder owned.
  • WFTO’s (the World Fair Trade Organisation) system, organisational focus, owned by its members.
  • SPP (Small Producer Symbol from the Producers of Latin America), product and organisationally focused, owned by farmers; based in Mexico.
  • Fair for Life – product focused, fair trade and organic, based in Switzerland.
  • Naturland Fair – product and organisationally focused, fair trade and organic, based in Germany and owned by farmers.
  • Eco Cert – product focused, fair trade and organic, based in France.

All of these are based on 3rd party, independent certification and all of them capture different, important nuances of what fair trade means. Of the systems, or labels, that Traidcraft recognises, some are specifically product focused, some are more interested in the “fair trade-ness” of the organisation itself. This distinction is important since ultimately, no product label can guarantee what really goes on in the heart of a company – nor are they designed to achieve that. But at Traidcraft we have always viewed fair trade as something you do as a matter of course, rather than something you do from time to time. After all, being fair to your suppliers makes no sense if you treat your employees abysmally. Fair is an absolute. Traidcraft was set up to “do” fair trade. It is what we do. It is all that we do. Sainsbury’s, just to take one example, was not. It has other imperatives and no matter how good or benign their governance structure may be, it is a company dedicated primarily to the interests of its shareholders. So, when companies decide to remove the Fairtrade Mark from their products, what does this tell us? It tells us that a commercially driven organisation has made a strategic decision to disengage with a certification system that no longer suits its business model. The main reason for the shift in focus seems to be towards long term supply security before and above producer empowerment. As a commercially driven organisation that may make sense, but it would be disingenuous to describe their new scheme as “fairly traded” since producer empowerment, one of the core concerns of all fair trade schemes, has been very substantially downgraded. In conclusion, the Fairtrade label is an excellent concept, but is neither the last, the best, nor the only word in the world of fair trade. It is a useful tool for commercially driven organisations to make a claim, or start a journey, with a fairly limited range of classic products. But the label says nothing whatsoever about a company’s real engagement with its partners, nor its intentions towards its staff or customers. The only real predicator of fair trade in its broadest context, is whether the company itself is whole-heartedly engaged and connected to its core principles, and to have this rooted in its governance structure. There are precious few real Fair Traders around, and at Traidcraft we see all labels merely as the beginning, not the end of a journey. Other companies are not likely to change their minds, but thankfully, neither will Traidcraft. Fair trade is all we ever aspire to do.