Is Fairtrade Really as Fair as it Claims to Be?

Is Fairtrade really as fair as it claims to be?

Using Fairtrade products labels you directly as a better person. But is it really so? Everything has pros and cons, so I decided to investigate a little bit and go into illuminati mode: what if Fairtrade was only a conspiracy of the welfare states to make their inhabitants believe that the world is all butterflies and rainbows? Okay, that may be a bit much, but still, I looked at it a bit more closely, and here’s what I found.

According to Fairtrade international, “Fairtrade is an alternative approach to conventional trade and is based on a partnership between producers and consumers. When farmers can sell on Fairtrade terms, it provides them with a better deal and improved terms of trade. This allows them the opportunity to improve their lives and plan for their future. Fairtrade offers consumers a powerful way to reduce poverty through their everyday shopping." So, if a product is certified Fairtrade, it means that the producer is guaranteed a decent pay, better sustainability and better work conditions. There are specific standards to be met for each product to get the Fairtrade label.

When one producer gets a Fairtrade certification, that is the loss of one that does not, as the retailer switches to the Fairtrade-certified producer. The simple solution to this would be that all producers get a Fairtrade certification. Unfortunately, things are rarely simple. A producer has to meet certain standards to be eligible, as well as pay a yearly fee. For many producers, especially the poorest and the ones living in remote areas, it is not always financially possible to change the way they work and pay extra fees. We must also remember that even if the Fairtrade certification often plays in favor of the producer, it is not yet a guarantee of sales. So, for many, it can be too big of a risk to take. If, on the other hand, the fees were relative to the amount of sales a producer makes, the fee would maybe not be such a big obstacle for many.

Many farmers organize into cooperations to get more benefits from being certified. Then the power to distribute the incomes fairly is given to the cooperation. Unfortunately, in many places the distribution ends up being anything but fair. The same problem goes for plantations.

There is also quite a big paradox with Fairtrade: it is a brand that must show itself to customers as a ready solution for a better world. That can prevent it from tackling problems that, in reality, are not solved yet. Some problems are solved, of course, but the public is not informed of them and so they keep an image of Fairtrade as a perfect solution.

Still, there are definitely some great things in Fairtrade: first, the idea behind it is very noble and admirable. We need that kind of attitude in this capitalist world where money decides and those without it are forgotten. Fairtrade guarantees the same minimum prices for producers’ products all year long, which means that a bad season doesn't affect the price of products too much. The Fairtrade label is also very appreciated by consumers in general, which encourages companies to use Fairtrade labeled producers to increase sales. Thus, getting a Fairtrade certification could increase the producers’ sales a lot.

So, is Fairtrade really fair? Yes – in some cases. Sometimes the Fairtrade certification really improves the conditions of farmers and producers. But other times, Fairtrade remains a label that makes consumers feel good about their choices. The chain between a consumer and a producer is long, and there are many ways the price the consumer pays for the producer to be paid decently can get lost along the way. The retailer can also set the price of a product higher than necessary because a product is Fairtrade certified, just to increase their income. Not that producers wouldn't get anything, but I think we shouldn't be too naive and think that all the extra we pay for a Fairtrade product goes to the producer. In addition, Fairtrade is a good solution for “middle poor” producers, but it often leaves the poorest, who are in the biggest need for help, out of the system because they are living too remotely or can’t afford the registration fees, which means that they also risk losing their customers when they switch to Fairtrade certified producers.

I think it’s also important to remember that Fairtrade International is not the only certification for ethical and fair trade. There are plenty more of them out there, that can also have a positive impact. UTZ, Rainforest Alliance, Naturland Fair, Fair For Life, Ecocert Fair Trade, Forest Stewardship Council are examples of those, but there are many more, local and international, as well as many certifications for organic products that often take working conditions into account too. My aim here is not to tell you to stop buying Fairtrade products. Many of them are definitely worth your money and serve a good cause. What I simply think is that we should look closer into that jungle of certifications and be critical, because everything is not always as rosy as branding can make us believe. There are many great articles, websites and studies online to look deeper into that, and if you are Finnish, I recommend reading “Reilumman kaupan jäljillä” by Johan Ehrstedt and Mervi Leppäkorpi. That book gives you an insight into the possible problematic scenarios with Fairtrade.

I am a second-year student at the University of Helsinki with French as a major. I have a passion for writing, photography, traveling, ethical living and learning every day. I want to improve myself every day in some way, because I know that at the end of the day, that is going to be the biggest reward I can give myself.

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