For a long, long, time I hadmerely a dim idea of what Fairtrade was or what it did. I always presumed it described some sort of trade, that was, well, fair. I had a simplistic idea of it as; Fairtrade is good, it gives coffee farmers fair wages and stuff and Starbucks sometimes supports it so that's cool (Starbucks actually purchases less than 10% Fairtrade annually). However, gradually I began to understand what Fairtrade means and that it is much larger than a system of operations but rather a global organization championing fairness and sustainability in commerce. And, (I know starting a sentence with "and" is an English teacher's nightmare, me apologize) to be frank the vast majority of what I learned of Fairtrade came during my research for this article.
Allow me to paint the scene for Fairtrade's humble origins; the year was 1988, and according to Wikipedia it was an exciting time to be alive. The world had only known one George Bush as a Politician (even that was too much) and NHL star Jonathan Toews was just being born. McDonald's opened it's first restaurant in a Communist country, Gorbachev was reforming Russia, and Big and Die Hard were just gracing screens. It was an exciting time truly, and in this Fairtrade was born. Fairtrade began small, with one brand to begin with debuting in Holland under the name Max Havelaar. Max Havelaar was a coffee brand (as Fairtrade has become famous for) that was named after the Dutch myth of Max Havelaar who opposed worker exploitation on Dutch Coffee farms.
Fair trade as an idea and as a fragmented concept had been around for 40-plus years before the Max Havelaar brand however. There was Ten Thousand Villages which saw fair wage, fair hours and sustainable development for crafts and needle work in 1946 and SERRV aided the poorest South American communities in the late 40's. OXFAM UK supported Chinese refugees with reliable and fair jobs making crafts in the 50's and an early ideation of Fairtrade begin in the 60's in the United Kingdom. However it wasn't until a Dutch priest based in Mexico-who saw first-hand the effects of Fair and Sustainable growing practices-came up with the idea of labelling and centralizing that makes Fairtrade what it is today. The priest and his Church came up with the idea of a universal Fair trade organization and the modern labeling practices. Today the Fairtrade "brand" employs or assists employment for 1.5 million farmers and workers in 74 countries across the world. Which is decent considering the Fair trade bra d started as a bag of coffee beans named after some Dutch legend.
Fairtrade specifically, is a worldwide organization embodying the social movement of fair and sustainable production. Interestingly the most important thing Fairtrade does is certify and label. Yes, the most important part of Fairtrade is it's label, I'm of course not referring to the label itself (though that thing is popping man) but to everything that comes with it. That label is worth it's weight in a billion dollars (it doesn't actually weigh much but it's worth a lot, it was a joke okay?!). The label comes with great onus; the broad requirements according to the website itself: "The Mark means that the Fairtrade ingredients in the product have been produced by small-scale farmer organisations or plantations that meet Fairtrade social, economic and environmental standards. The standards include protection of workers’ rights and the environment, payment of the Fairtrade Minimum Price and an additional Fairtrade Premium to invest in business or community projects." That, in a nutshell is what Fairtrade does. It's an incredibly valuable label that symbolically means so much more.
Now for the fun part (but honestly my whole article has been a hoot and half....right?). The fun will begin with the Pro's and Con's of Fairtrade because of course, there will come along some con's in any good thing.
Right now Fairtrade has generated some 5.6 Billion in US dollars this year alone. The number is constantly rising and you can watch it grow millisecond by millisecond here: http://www.theworldcounts.com/counters/international_poverty_statistics/fair%20trade%20statistics%20
-Fairtrade supports producers in 60 countries and is sold in 70, accounting for 2849 certified business organizations.
-Fairtrade inspires consumers to actually vote with their dollars, and it brings a face and brand to sustainable and ethical production.
-Fairtrade has allowed for a centralized and ubiquitous brand for which farmers and companies can label and work with, it brings incentives to "go Green".
-Fair trade has a market growth of roughly 20% yearly in Europe since 2000, it also has a share of 47% in bananas (just a fun fact) proving it is not a fad nor is it going away anytime soon.
-Fairtrade provides workers with fair wages and allows the producers to invest appropriately in crops, and organically, avoiding the cheap (though not necessarily "wrong") mass production that some farmers are coerced into.
-Fairtrade directly helps prevent growth in poor communities and developing countries and avoid economic abuses by offering a fair, economically sound alternative.
-It has aided in reducing the amount of farms and plantations using child labour. Which has in turn increased youth education and not coincidentally, national literacy rates.
-Regardless of fluctuating international prices there is always a minimum wage-floor for Fairtrade producers.
-Fairtrade farmers operate using organic practices which are widely recognized and known to be environmentally sustainable, beneficial, and safe.
-Because of the heightened cost of Fairtrade producers, big companies are more likely to use cheaper methods such as factories which negatively impact the environment.
-Oftentimes, retailers can charge consumers more than initial pricing for Fairtrade products which does not translate back to more for producers.
-Certain plantation and farm owners still exploit certain needy sectors such as children for work, though there is a significant reduction.
-Because of the prices and the smaller-scale nature of Fairtrade (Ad-Hoc labelling not entire companies being Fairtrade) it has still not entirely broken into big supermarket chains or retailers, but stay tuned for the future.
Ultimately the final verdict is up to you, my friendly readers, however, given the evidence I know precisely where I stand. Fairtrade has widespread and entirely unique positives that benefit the most desperate sectors related to human commerce. Fairtrade offers developing countries better and faster ways to develop, it aids our sweet planet earth immensely, and it empowers consumers to make a palpable difference. Fairtrade is fair and sustainable and the best commerce-oriented organization out there for our dear earth.
Post-Script: I recognize that while this is an environmental blog, this piece was not explicitly so. In actuality I decided that since Fair Trade is so inextricably tied to environmentally friendly practices that I would do a summary and quick appraisal of it on a larger scale, but lest we forget, Fairtrade does the environment a world of good.