I have been lucky because shopping Fairtrade was something I grew up with and my family always did. There was a Traidcraft stall at my church which sold Fairtrade food and products every week and I loved having Fairtrade chocolate after church - what child wouldn't?
But as I grew up and went to university I had to decide whether I would choose to support Fairtrade myself, sometimes at a slightly higher cost. I have also become more aware of other Fairtrade products outside of food, such as clothes, bedding and jewellery, and so I had a decision as to whether I chose to incorporate them into my life. As a whole if I am able to find an item with the Fairtrade certification then I will choose to buy that over an alternative which may not have it.
This is because I believe that every person should be treated with love and respect, and paying them a fair wage that allows them to better their own lives and that of their family and community is one way to show respect and love. I'm Christian and the bible tell us to "love our neighbours" and even though I cannot travel across the world to show love in person to the people who grew my tea, I can show them love and respect by making sure when I buy my tea that a fair wage is being paid to them. But even if you don't have a faith I'm sure we can all agree that paying someone a fair wage for their work is something that should always happen, although unfortunately it does not.
What is Fairtrade?
Fairtrade is a certification, similar to organic or cruelty free certifications, that products can have if they fulfil certain social, economic and environmental standards. "For farmers and workers the standards include protection of workers’ rights and the environment, for companies they include the payment of the Fairtrade Minimum Price and an additional Fairtrade Premium to invest in business or community projects of the community’s choice."
Fairtrade guarantees a Fairtrade minimum price goes to the farmers and workers - always set above the price to produce the item, no matter what the market for that product looks like. Fairtrade was established in response to the crash of world coffee prices in the 1980's. Under Fairtrade regulations, if a similar crash were to happen again, farmers would continue to receive at least the Fairtrade minimum income which covers at least their costs for production. Through their organisations, they receive the additional Fairtrade Premium on top of their income, which communities can decide to use to invest in business or community improvements.
What is the Fairtrade Premium?
The Fairtrade premium is an additional source of money which goes to a communal fund for the farmers and workers to use to improve their community or businesses. All Fairtrade farmers are part of a co-operative and the Fairtrade Premium is given at the co-operative level. The co-operatives, via elected representatives, then get to decide what to do with that money and where to invest it to see improvements socially, economically, or environmentally.
But fair wages don't have an impact on the environment?
Fairtrade is actually also good for the environment, as before receiving certification, farmers must reach certain environmental development standards. Farmers are so reliant on their environment and Fairtrade shows them how to care for their land to ensure that they are able to continue growing crops and receiving a good income, by considering crucial concepts like biodiversity and energy efficiency. When farmers are given support and an income they are able to do more than just scrape by, they are able to make a significant positive impact on their local communities and environment. There are plenty more environmental benefits to learn about if you're interested in an short film by Fairtrade campaigners called "How Green is Fairtrade?".
Sounds great, any down sides?
Now, Fairtrade like any other certification is not perfect. Farmers have to pay for their Fairtrade certification which does mean smaller farmers often are not able to join even if they would meet all the standards. This means that Fairtrade is not able to offer a means for the poorest farmers to lift themselves out of poverty. There is also concerns about whether all workers on farms receive a legal minimum wage, as Fairtrade does not police wages directly if the smallholder only employs a few workers, which means that there could be concerns about slavery on small farms. People often cite concerns about lack of incentive to improve quality and a failure to tackle the root causes of poverty as other concerns with Fairtrade.
Also it may cost more, maybe not for food due to the high demand, but products like clothes and bedding see a large price increase. This is understandable given that everyone along the supply chain, and in the case of fabrics, the added production workers, is being paid a fair wage and that is a drastically different from the items on the high street. However it does mean that it can seem unobtainable for people on a lower income.
Overall I will continue to buy Fairtrade as I believe it is the most consistent certification, with a wide range of product, and offers a minimum payment which other certifications like Organic Certified and Rainforest Alliance do not. I do not believe it is a perfect system but we sometimes in this current economy and culture, need to choose the best option out of some imperfect ones. For now, until a better option comes along, I am content to put my money into Fairtrade knowing that it is helping at least some people, instead of buying products without any certification or knowledge of whether the people in the supply chain are being adequately paid.
I try especially hard to buy Fairtrade products like clothes or bedding, as that not only ensures that the cotton farmers are being paid a fair wage, but it also ensures that the garment workers who are making my clothes are treated with respect and are working in an environment which is safe. Personally, I cannot fully enjoy a food or product if I am concerned that people in the supply chain were not treated fairly.