THINK ABOUT IT: Fair Trade... does it really mean what you think it means?

an in-depth look by Pei-Ling Lee, bonJOY writer

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When you see a Fair Trade Certified label on a product, you expect that product to have been ethically produced and to benefit the poorest in its chain of production. In its FAQs, Fair Trade USA says that “Fair Trade offers (consumers) a powerful way to reduce poverty through their everyday shopping.” Naturally, you expect that when you buy something with the fair trade logo on it, you are helping to reduce poverty or at least provide something close to a living wage. 

However, in an article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Colleen Haight, San Jose State University Associate Professor of Economics, presents several issues with fair trade, specifically with Fairtrade International (FLO), the main accreditor of fair trade products worldwide. 

These issues include:

  • Mandatory price floor that causes farmers to sell fair trade producers lower quality products (because farmers can earn more on the open market by selling their higher quality goods) 
  • Inability to reach the poorest and most marginalized in farming communities—migrant laborers
  • Lack of transparency in business dealings
  • Incentivization for farmers to remain in the coffee industry, for instance, when regions and climates are markedly unsuitable

And although there are articles such as this one by a representative of Fair Trade USA that laud the benefit of Fair Trade apparel, these sponsored pieces demonstrate an effective marketing strategy more than they provide evidence of addressing the problems they so eloquently elucidate.

The bottom line is research shows that fair trade is not trickling down to the most disadvantaged people—those who depend on manual labor for survival. In fact, research on the impact of Fair Trade Certification for coffee by Harvard Professor of Economics Nathan Nunn says, “There is no evidence that many workers, including unskilled seasonal coffee pickers, benefit from certification.” This Huffington Post article further summarizes 10 reasons why fair trade coffee isn’t as fair as it seems.

“Putting faith in a blue-and-green Fairtrade label alone is, perhaps, too simple,”

...notes Kristy Leissle, a Global Studies Professor at the University of Washington, Bothell, who researches the cocoa-chocolate trade, in her article entitled “What’s Fairer than Fair Trade? Try Direct Trade With Cocoa Farmers.”

On the topic of direct trade, Alfrainio Paiva is a coffee farmer in Brazil who runs Fazenda Recanto, a farm that supplies to the likes of Illy and Nespresso … and is not Fair Trade Certified. Instead, it is Rainforest Alliance Certified. In this Huff Post article, he remarks: “‘Since coffee has a high production cost, direct trade rewards us by paying a fair price, which allows us to maintain our production… It’s the closest form of fair negotiation; actually, it is really what is considered a true fair trade.’”

All things said, the fair trade movement has contributed to creating a class of consumers who are more interested in knowing where their goods are coming from and how they are being made. And this discussion around the questionable fairness of fair trade will only encourage fair trade organizations to improve upon their current practices and become more truly fair. 

bonJOY has personal conversations with all brand partners to ensure ethical production standards, including living wages, social investment, etc.

“Transparency means a lot to us, so we want to reflect that in everything we offer. Knowing that bonJOY can help provide jobs for those who’ve experienced hardships like exploitation, abuse, and oppression is what drives us,”

...says our co-founder Esther Chen-Meyers. “When we feel confident that our products are high quality and ethically made, we are proud to share it with you, and we hope you’ll stay with us for the long run. Our goal is to be the business that makes combining style + social impact easy and accessible while also providing an insider look into how far your dollar can be stretched to make an impact in someone’s life.”

So what does that mean for us? It means, yes, we look for the fair trade label, but we don't stop there – we put in a little effort to research what brands go beyond fair trade. We can do a Google search of our favorite companies’ supply chains, ethics, and sustainability statements. We can look at the labels on the items we buy for where they’re made, what they’re made from, and how to take care of them in order to discern the quality of the piece. And we can read articles like the ones linked above to educate ourselves on the issue.

Malls are shiny and enticing places. Filled with Topshop, Zara, Forever 21, and the like, malls aren’t known for being fervent supporters of fair trade which makes it even more challenging to shop ethically. When I was shopping the other day, I found it ever so challenging to justify any purchase from these fast fashion shops. I couldn’t help but think about the laborers, farmers, and seamstresses whose hard work went virtually unrecognized. I did come very close to buying one sweater dress from Zara, but upon final examination, I noticed a snag on the arm that was a reminder of the cheapness of its quality, the fleetingness of its trend, and the unjustness of its maker. It made me more encouraged to thrift and buy second-hand, where the footprint for my purchase would be virtually zero. 

I wish that this wasn’t the case. I wish that fair trade was as fair as its mission statement ... that it was the norm rather than something that required a special label ... and that its certification organizations were more transparent about their effects on the world. But as consumers like you and me become more knowledgeable about the state of food, of fashion, of fair trade, I have hope that we are all heading in the right direction.  

— Pei-Ling