Background guide #6

Fair trade

From chocolate and coffee to cut flowers, people in the UK now buy more Fairtrade-certified goods than ever. But what's it all about and who benefits?

Farmers, plantation workers and other producers in developing countries typically receive only a tiny fraction of the money generated by their crops or products. They also frequently face problems such as unstable prices and a lack of access to finance.

The aim of the fair trade movement is to help disadvantaged producers overcome these and other problems by offering ‘fair' terms of trade.

Illustration: Fair trade

Quick Jump

What is fair trade food?

Any product traded with ethical principals in mind might be described as 'fair trade' or 'fairly traded'. However, only products that have been audited according to a strict set of specific criteria can carry the official Fairtrade mark.

The exact criteria vary between product categories, though all Fairtrade-certified traders must:

  • Pay a price that covers the cost of living
  • Pay a premium that producers can invest in development
  • Make partial advance payments, when requested by producers
  • Sign contracts that allow for long-term planning and sustainable production practices

The Fairtrade mark is not the brand of a particular company - it's an independent labelling scheme administered in the UK by the Fairtrade Foundation.

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The idea of trading with the aim of supporting poor producers has been around for decades. But fair-trade labelling didn't take off until 1988, when Dutch NGOs and politicians worked together to promote fairly traded coffee from a cooperative in Mexico.

This groundbreaking scheme was in response to the collapse of the world coffee prices, which threatened the livelihoods of millions of poor farmers. Over the following years, the approach spearheaded in Holland spread to other countries and the system was extended to cover new products such as bananas, chocolate and tea.

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Fairtrade today

Today, Fairtrade-certified products account for a small but significant portion of Europe's food imports. The system benefits an estimated 800,000 farmers and workers (plus millions of family members) in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In the UK, more than half of consumers recognise the Fairtrade mark and the market is presently valued at £300 million.

Coffee, chocolate, bananas and tea are still among the most popular fairly traded products. But now the Fairtrade mark can also be found on various fruit and vegetables, as well as wine, honey, cotton clothes and footballs.

Aside from these officially certified products, there are also many ethically traded handicrafts and other items available via websites, fair trade shops or charity catalogues.

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Countering criticism

As the fair trade movement has grown, various questions have been raised about which products and traders should qualify for certification.

British Fairtrade. In 2003, a consultation was held about the possibility of organic farmers in the UK qualifying for Fairtrade certification. In the end, the idea was rejected, because consumers felt the scheme should focus specifically on poor farmers in developing countries.

Local versus fair trade. Most Fairtrade certified products are tropical crops that can't be easily grown in Europe. But since 2003 it's been possible to buy some Fairtrade produce, such as apples from South Africa, which could have been grown locally. Some environmental campaigners concerned about ‘food miles' feel that this introduces an unnecessary clash between ethical trade and climate protection.

The Nestlé debate. In 2005, Nestlé started selling Fairtrade certified coffee under its Partners Blend brand. This was seen as controversial because of the criticism Nestlé has received over the years over various ethical issues. But the Fairtrade Foundation considered Nestlé's decision a huge success, demonstrating that fair trade principles were starting to affect major corporations.

Such debates aside, there's no doubting the huge success of the fair trade movement over the past two decades. And, with the sales of Fairtrade-certified products continuing to rise steeply, the next ten years look set to see even greater success.

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These guides have been reproduced from BBC Green, part of BBC Worldwide.

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