Blog: All Sectors

Fair Trade & Co-ops: Setting Global Standards of Respect

January 11, 2018

What is Fair Trade?

What do coffee, chocolate, gold, cotton, and bananas have in common? At first glance, not much- but these are some of the most popular goods produced internationally and then sold in the United States. There’s also a good chance these products are used in your everyday routine: brewing a cup of morning coffee, getting dressed in your favorite shirt, sliding a special ring on your finger. But, do you know where your staple items came from? Who farmed the coffee beans for your latte, or who mined the gold for your wedding band?

Discussions and statistics about international trade are buzzing around the internet and “Fair Trade” labels can be easily spotted in grocery stores or online shops, but many consumers are still disconnected with the origin of their purchases. Low prices are tempting and it’s easy to overlook the ethical cost of producing mass quantities of retail. Learning about unethical trade practices and understanding how Fair Trade can be used as an alternative business model can help consumers make better decisions at the register.

Advancements in technology are making transactions easier than ever before. Convenient online shopping experiences make checking out as easy as one click, and shoppers can receive their purchase without ever coming in contact with another human. This automation continues to push consumers farther and farther away from who is actually creating the goods that are being purchased. For this reason, it is increasingly important for people to know where their products come from, and who is benefiting from the money used to purchase each item. 

Unfortunately and in many cases, small farmers from third world countries are working long hours and under hazardous conditions to produce a product that will be sold in the U.S. Despite their hard work, these producers have little to no say in the value of the product and struggle to maintain support for their families. The majority of the money you spend on conventionally traded items will go to the retailer and the middlemen; leaving  the person who actually did the work to bring that item to your basket with far too little income. 

When something is labeled as “Fair Trade”, it means the people who make the product and the buyers who bring the product to market in the U.S. are following the standards outlined by a Fair Trade organization. These standards may differ slightly depending on the certifying organization, but always exist to improve trade by promoting economic and environmental sustainability and respect.

How is Fair Trade #Cooperative?

Fair Trade workers aren’t left to fend for themselves among large corporations and middle-men. They are part of a co-op! Through the co-op, they can access credit to help grow their business, connect directly with buyers to negotiate the value of their goods, and connect with other workers in their trade to help one another grow. This video from FairTrade Canada does a great job explaining the meaning of Fair Trade and illustrates how a FairTrade coffee farmer co-op succeeds by working together.

Equal Exchange: A Worker-Owned Cooperative with a vision for Fair Trade

Equal Exchange works with small farmer organizations to source fair trade products from more than 40 small farmer organizations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the United States! Equal Exchange helps the farmers in each fair trade co-op to work together to thrive, a practice they carry over into their own business structure as well. Equal Exchange is structured as a worker co-op, which means they are owned by their employees rather than outside investors or shareholders. Their mission to “build long-term trade partnerships that are economically just and environmentally sound, to foster mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and consumers and to demonstrate, through our success, the contribution of worker co-operatives and Fair Trade to a more equitable, democratic and sustainable world.”

Through the Equal Exchange website, customers can shop Equal Exchange products such as coffee, chocolate & cocoa, dried fruit & nut mixes, and more! They also have cafes in Boston, Ohio, and Illinois, all of which serve their Fair Trade certified coffee. The resource section on their website is great tool to learn more about Fair Trade, Co-ops, and the Food Industry. It also includes a wide selection of videos, documentaries, academic articles and studies to encourage even more consumer education.

WTFO’s 10 Principles of Fair Trade

World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) is the largest global network of Fair Trade organizations in the world and helps communicate messages about Fair Trade to the public. Fair Trade organizations can join the WFTO network to connect and work together, exchange best practices and stay up to date on happenings in the fair trade movement. All organizations in the network follow these 10 principles throughout their supply chain:10 Fair Trade Principles

  1. Creating Opportunities for Economically Disadvantaged Producers
  2. Transparency and Accountability
  3. Fair Trading Practices
  4. Fair Payment
  5. Ensuring no Child Labor and Forced Labor
  6. Commitment to Non Discrimination, Gender Equity and Women’s Economic Empowerment, and Freedom of Association
  7. Ensuring Good Working Conditions
  8. Providing Capacity Building
  9. Promoting Fair Trade
  10. Respect for the Environment

Read more on the WFTO principles here

These principles ensure that WTFO members are held to clear and consistent standards.

Fair Trade Fights Global Inequalities

Fair Trade principles and regulations can make the world of a difference for the small farmers and workers that are often otherwise exploited by conventional trade practices.

In the Ted Talk, Fair Trade: A Just World Starts with You, Benjamin Conard reveals some shocking statistics about the conventional trade system and current world economy.

  • 2 billion people in the world live on less than $2 a day
  • ⅔ of the world’s cocoa come from West African farmers that make less than 50 cents a day
  • 1.8 million children work on cocoa plantations along the Ivory coast- they likely have never even tasted chocolate.

How can consumers respond to these inequalities? Conard reminds us that we have the power and the responsibility to hold businesses to a higher standard of practice. We can vote with our dollars and select the food and clothing that we know has been responsibly produced. Conard emphasizes that, “Fair Trade is a vehicle to supporting and respecting workers’ rights”. We can demand that the products we consume are sourced responsibly and the people who do the work are being treated with respect.

Fair Trade isn’t a charity, Conard distinguishes, it’s an ethical way of doing business which benefits small farmers and producers. As conscious consumers, we have the opportunity to improve the lives of workers with every dollar we spend. Learn more about Fair Trade, and share your knowledge with friends and family members who might not know about the movement. The first step towards building a better world starts with you!

More Fair Trade movement resources, certification information and products: Fair World Project ; World Fair Trade Organization ; Equal Exchange ; Fair Trade America ; Ten Thousand Villages