Fair trade is 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. It focuses in particular on exports from developing countries to developed countries, most notably handicrafts, coffee, cocoa, sugar, tea, bananas, honey, cotton, wine, fresh fruit and flowers.
Fair trade's strategic intent is to deliberately work with marginalized producers and workers in order to help them move from a position of vulnerability to one of security and economic self-sufficiency. It also aims at empowering them to become stakeholders in their own organizations and actively play a wider role in the global arena to achieve greater equity in international trade. Fair trade proponents include a wide array of international religious, development aid, social and environmental organizations such as Oxfam, Amnesty International, Catholic Relief Services, and Caritas International.
In 2007, Fair trade certified sales amounted to approximately €2.3 billion (US $3.62 billion) worldwide, a 47% year-to-year increase. While this represents a tiny fraction of world trade in physical merchandise, fair trade products generally account for 1-20% of all sales in their product categories in Europe and North America. In June 2008, it was estimated that over 7.5 million disadvantaged producers and their families were benefiting from fair trade funded infrastructure, technical assistance and community development projects.
The principles of Fair Trade are based on the practical and shared experience of Fair Trade organisations over many years and reflect the diversity of Fair Trade relationships. The most important of these are unique to Fair Trade and are integral to its developmental objectives. These include:
Many producers are excluded from mainstream and added-value markets, or only access them via lengthy and inefficient trading chains. Fair trade helps producers realise the social benefits to their communities of traditional forms of production. By promoting these values (that are not generally recognised in conventional markets) it enables buyers to trade with producers who would otherwise be excluded from these markets. It also helps shorten trade chains so that producers receive more from the final selling price of their goods than is the norm in conventional trade via multiple intermediaries.
The economic basis of transactions within Fair Trade relationships takes account of all costs of production, both direct and indirect, including the safeguarding of natural resources and meeting future investment needs. Trading terms offered by Fair Trade buyers enable producers and workers to maintain a sustainable livelihood; that is one that not only meets day-to-day needs for economic, social and environmental wellbeing but that also enables improved conditions in the future. Prices and payment terms (including prepayment where required) are determined by assessment of these factors rather than just reference to current market conditions. There is a commitment to a long-term trading partnership that enables both sides to co-operate through information sharing and planning, and the importance of these factors in ensuring decent working conditions is recognised.
Fair Trade relationships assist producer organisations to understand more about market conditions and trends and to develop knowledge, skills and resources to exert more control and influence over their lives.
Fair Trade relationships provide the basis for connecting producers with consumers and for informing consumers of the need for social justice and the opportunities for change. Consumer support enables Fair Trade Organisations to be advocates and campaigners for wider reform of international trading rules, to achieve the ultimate goal of a just and equitable global trading system.
In 1998, these four federations created together FINE, an informal association whose goal is to harmonize fair trade standards and guidelines, increase the quality and efficiency of fair trade monitoring systems, and advocate fair trade politically.
Student groups have also been increasingly active in the past years promoting fair trade products both on their campuses and their communities. Although hundreds of independent student organizations are active worldwide, most groups in North America are either affiliated with United Students for Fair Trade (USA) or the Canadian Student Fair Trade Network (Canada).
The year 1965 saw the creation of the first Alternative Trading Organization (ATO): that year, British NGO Oxfam launched "Helping-by-Selling", a program which sold imported handicrafts in Oxfam stores in the UK and from mail-order catalogues.
In 1969, the first Worldshop opened its doors in the Netherlands. The initiative aimed at bringing the principles of fair trade to the retail sector by selling almost exclusively goods produced under fair trade terms in “underdeveloped regions”. The first shop was run by volunteers and was so successful that dozens of similar shops soon went into business in the Benelux countries, Germany, and in other Western European countries.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, important segments of the fair trade movement worked to find markets for products from countries that were excluded from the mainstream trading channels for political reasons. Thousands of volunteers sold coffee from Angola and Nicaragua in Worldshops, in the back of churches, from their homes, and from stands in public places, using the products as a vehicle to deliver their message: give disadvantaged producers in developing countries a fair chance on the world’s market, and support their self-determined sustainable development. The alternative trade movement blossomed, if not in sales, then at least in terms of dozens of ATOs being established on both sides of the Atlantic, of scores of Worldshops being set up, and of well-organized actions and campaigns attacking exploitation and foreign domination, and promoting the ideals of Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere, and the Nicaraguan Sandinistas: the right to independence and self-determination, to equitable access to the world’s markets and consumers.
In the subsequent years, fair trade agricultural commodities played an important role in the growth of many ATOs: successful on the market, they offered a much-needed, renewable source of income for producers and provided Alternative Trading Organizations a perfect complement to the handicrafts market. The first fair trade agricultural products were tea and coffee, quickly followed by dried fruits, cocoa, sugar, fruit juices, rice, spices, and nuts. While in 1992, a sales value ratio of 80% handcrafts to 20% agricultural goods was the norm, in 2002 handcrafts amounted to 25.4% of fair trade sales while commodity food lines were up at 69.4%.
A solution was found in 1988, when the first Fairtrade certification initiative, Max Havelaar, was created in the Netherlands under the initiative of Nico Roozen, Frans Van Der Hoff, and Dutch development NGO Solidaridad. The independent certification allowed the goods to be sold outside the Worldshops and into the mainstream, reaching a larger consumer segment and boosting fair trade sales significantly. The labeling initiative also allowed customers and distributors alike to track the origin of the goods to confirm that the products were really benefiting the producers at the end of the supply chain.
The concept caught on: in the ensuing years, similar non-profit Fairtrade labelling organizations were set up in other European countries and North America. In 1997, a process of convergence among labelling organizations – or “LIs” (for “Labelling Initiatives”) – led to the creation of Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). FLO is an umbrella organization whose mission is to set the Fairtrade standards, support, inspect and certify disadvantaged producers, and harmonize the Fairtrade message across the movement.
In 2002, FLO launched for the first time an International Fairtrade Certification Mark. The goals of the launch were to improve the visibility of the Mark on supermarket shelves, facilitate cross border trade, and simplify procedures for both producers and importers. At present, the certification mark is used in over 50 countries and on dozens of different products, based on FLO’s certification for coffee, tea, rice, bananas, mangoes, cocoa, cotton, sugar, honey, fruit juices, nuts, fresh fruit, quinoa, herbs and spices, wine, footballs, etc.
Fairtrade labelling (usually simply Fairtrade or Fair Trade Certified in the US) is a certification system designed to allow consumers to identify goods which meet agreed standards. Overseen by a standard-setting body (FLO International) and a certification body (FLO-CERT), the system involves independent auditing of producers and traders to ensure the agreed standards are met.
For a product to carry either the International Fairtrade Certification Mark or the Fair Trade Certified Mark, it must come from FLO-CERT inspected and certified producer organizations. The crops must be grown and harvested in accordance with the international Fairtrade standards set by FLO International. The supply chain must also have been monitored by FLO-CERT, to ensure the integrity of labelled products.
Fairtrade certification guarantees not only fair prices, but also the principles of ethical purchasing. These principles include adherence to ILO agreements such as those banning child and slave labour, guaranteeing a safe workplace and the right to unionise, adherence to the United Nations charter of human rights, a fair price that covers the cost of production and facilitates social development, and protection and conservation of the environment. The Fairtrade certification system also promotes long-term business relationships between buyers and sellers, crop prefinancing, and greater transparency throughout the supply chain and more.
The Fairtrade certification system covers a growing range of products, including bananas, honey, coffee, oranges, cocoa, cotton, dried and fresh fruits and vegetables, juices, nuts and oil seeds, quinoa, rice, spices, sugar, tea, and wine. Companies offering products that meet the Fairtrade standards may apply for licences to use one of the Fairtrade Certification Marks for those products.
The International Fairtrade Certification Mark was launched in 2002 by FLO, and replaced twelve Marks used by various Fairtrade labelling initiatives. The new Certification Mark is currently used worldwide (with the exception of Canada and the United States). The Fair Trade Certified Mark, used in Canada and in the United States, also still identifies Fairtrade goods in both countries. Full transition to the new Mark should become reality in the future as it gradually replaces the old Certification Marks in both countries.
As early as 1994, the European Commission prepared the “Memo on alternative trade” in which it declared its support for strengthening Fair Trade in the South and North and its intention to establish an EC Working Group on Fair Trade. Furthermore, the same year, the European Parliament adopted the “Resolution on promoting fairness and solidarity in North South trade” (OJ C 44, 14.2.1994), a resolution voicing its support for fair trade.
In 1996, the Economic and Social Committee adopted an “Opinion on the European “Fair Trade” marking movement”. A year later, in 1997, the document was followed by a resolution adopted by the European Parliament, calling on the Commission to support Fair Trade banana operators. The same year, the European Commission published a survey on “Attitudes of EU consumers to Fair Trade bananas”, concluding that Fair Trade bananas would be commercially viable in several EU Member States.
In 1998, the European Parliament adopted the “Resolution on Fair Trade” (OJ C 226/73, 20.07.1998), which was followed by the Commission in 1999 that adopted the “Communication from the Commission to the Council on “Fair Trade” COM(1999) 619 final, 29.11.1999.
In 2000, public institutions in Europe started purchasing Fairtrade Certified coffee and tea. Furthermore, that year, the Cotonou Agreement made specific reference to the promotion of Fair Trade in article 23 g) and in the Compendium. The European Parliament and Council Directive 2000/36/EC also suggested promoting Fair Trade.
In 2001 and 2002, several other EU papers explicitly mentioned fair trade, most notably the 2001 Green Paper on Corporate Social Responsibility and the 2002 Communication on Trade and Development.
In 2004, the European Union adopted the “Agricultural Commodity Chains, Dependence and Poverty – A proposal for an EU Action Plan”, with a specific reference to the Fair Trade movement which has “been setting the trend for a more socio-economically responsible trade.” (COM(2004)0089).
In 2005, in the European Commission communication “Policy Coherence for Development – Accelerating progress towards attaining the Millennium Development Goals”, (COM(2005) 134 final, 12.04.2005), Fair Trade is mentioned as “a tool for poverty reduction and sustainable development”.
And finally, on July 6, 2006, the European Parliament unanimously adopted a resolution on Fair Trade, recognizing the benefits achieved by the Fair Trade movement, suggesting the development of an EU-wide policy on Fair Trade, defining criteria that need to be fulfilled under Fair Trade to protect it from abuse and calling for greater support to Fair Trade (EP resolution “Fair Trade and development”, 6 July 2006). "This resolution responds to the impressive growth of Fair Trade, showing the increasing interest of European consumers in responsible purchasing," said Green MEP Frithjof Schmidt during the plenary debate. Peter Mandelson, EU Commissioner for External Trade, responded that the resolution will be well-received at the Commission. "Fair Trade makes the consumers think and therefore it is even more valuable. We need to develop a coherent policy framework and this resolution will help us.
In 2007, both Scottish and Welsh governments were actively attempting to become the "world's first fair trade country". In Wales, the campaign to make Wales the world’s first Fair Trade country was launched in 2004 by the National Assembly for Wales. In Scotland, First Minister Jack McConnell pledged that Scotland will aim to become a "Fair Trade Nation".
In June 2007, a parliamentary committee published the report Fair Trade and Development, criticising the government for "failing to adequately support fair trade despite having said it wanted to help poor countries trade their way out of poverty". The MPs, led by Malcolm Bruce, said the Department for International Development "had not kept pace with growing support for fair trade among the public and retailers".
The committee report examined several ethical trading schemes and concluded that fair trade was "gold standard in terms of trading relations with producers". It called for greater support both domestically and internationally of fair trade organisations and recommended making a senior official responsible for fair trade within the government. The report also suggested to commission research on the feasibility of a labelling scheme which will force all retailers to show how much they paid farmers and workers in the developing world for each particular product.
Implicit and often explicit in fair trade is a criticism of the current organization of international trade as being "unfair". Fair trade advocates argue in favor of the need for fair trade by mentioning the microeconomic market failures of the current system and the commodity crisis and its impact on developing country producers. According to Fair Trade umbrella organisations FLO International and IFAT: "Fair Trade is, fundamentally, a response to the failure of conventional trade to deliver sustainable livelihoods and development opportunities to people in the poorest countries of the world. Poverty and hardship limit people’s choices while market forces tend to further marginalise and exclude them. This makes them vulnerable to exploitation, whether as farmers and artisans in family-based production units or as hired workers within larger businesses.”
The example of coffee is particularly telling: "since it takes from three to four years for a coffee plant to produce significant quantities of coffee, and up to seven years before the plant reaches peak productivity, it is difficult for coffee farmers to react quickly to price fluctuations. As a result, coffee supply often increases even as market prices plummet. Further, this leads to a collective action problem, where each farmer has an incentive to increase production as price falls in order to reduce per unit cost and increase his or her margins. In aggregate, this activity creates a negative feedback loop and further depresses the world price."
According to Fair trade proponents, this example clearly shows how the absence of perfect microeconomic conditions can nullify or even reverse the potential gains to producers from trade. While Nicholls agrees that the win-win situation for all actors involved may be broadly correct in some markets, nevertheless, "within developing countries market conditions are not such that producers can unambiguously be declared to be better off through trade." The existence of these market failures lessens the capacity trade has to lift developing countries out of poverty.
Fair trade is seen as an attempt to address these purported market failures by providing producers a stable price for their crop, business support, access to premium Northern markets, and better general trading conditions.
Millions of poor farmers are dependent on commodities and on the price they receive for their harvest. In about 50 developing countries, three or fewer primary commodity exports constitute the bulk of export revenue.
Many farmers, often without other means of subsistence, are obliged to produce more and more, no matter how low the prices are. Research has shown that those who suffer most from declines in commodity prices are the rural poor — i.e. the majority of people living in developing countries. Basic agriculture employs over 50% of the people in developing countries, and accounts for 33% of their GDP.
Fair trade supporters believe current market prices do not properly reflect the true costs associated with production; they believe only a well-managed stable minimum price system can cover environmental and social production costs.
Criticism: Fair trade opponents such as the Adam Smith Institute claim that similar to other farm subsidies, fair trade attempts to set a price floor for a good that is in many cases above the market price and therefore encourages, as fair trade opponents claim, existing producers to produce more and new producers to enter the market, leading to excess supply. Through the laws of supply and demand, excess supply can lead to lower prices in the non-Fair Trade market.
In 2003, Cato Institute's vice president for research Brink Lindsey referred to fair trade as a “well intentioned, interventionist scheme...doomed to end in failure." Fair trade, according to Lindsey, is a misguided attempt to make up for market failures in which one flawed pricing structure is replaced with another. Lindsey's comments echo the main criticisms of Fair Trade, claiming that it "leads fair trade producers to increase production." While benefiting a number of Fair Trade producers over the short run, fair trade critics worry about the impact on long run development and economic growth. Economic theory suggests that when prices are low due to surplus production, adding a subsidy or otherwise artificially raising prices will only exacerbate the problem by encouraging more supply and also encouraging workers into unproductive activities.
Response: The Fairtrade Foundation counters the price distortion argument by claiming that fair trade does not ‘fix prices’. "It rather has a minimum floor price that ensures farmers can meet the costs of sustainable production should market prices fall below this level. The minimum price is not a fixed price but the starting point for a market-based price negotiation. Many fair trade growers routinely earn more than this for the quality, type of coffee bean (or other product) or the particular origin they offer. The minimum price mechanism provides the most vulnerable people in the supply chain the security to meet their basic costs in time of crisis. Effectively, it provides a safety net should markets fall below a level considered necessary for farmers to earn back the costs of sustainable production".
Moreoever, the fair trade minimum price only applies if the market price is lower than this. When market prices exceed the minimum price, traders must negotiate on the basis of market prices, not fair trade minimums.
Several academics, including Hayes, Becchetti, and Rosati also identify two other counterarguments to this criticism.