What Is Fair Trade? How to Support the Global Initiative

By Laurie Fanelli in Thinking Sustainably

We all want to do the best we can for our families, communities, the environment, and our wallets, but choosing the perfect product can be overwhelming. Fair Trade USA, launched in 1998, is working to educate consumers on which items are produced in a way that benefits farmers, workers, fishermen, the earth, and more by adding a "Fair Trade Certified" seal to products that meet its standards.

What Is Fair Trade?

In a nutshell, fair trade products are made with social, environmental, and economic standards in place, meaning producers provide their workers with safe conditions and fair wages while enabling environmental stewardship. When products meet these standards, the Fair Trade Certified seal is placed on the packaging, giving consumers confidence that the purchase supports a sustainable system.



When something like coffee, cotton, or even chocolate is mass-produced, it can sometimes be done in a way that prioritizes the bottom line at the expense of workers and the environment. According to Oxfam New Zealand, multinational companies receive the bulk of proceeds and often use their global status to encourage growers to continually lower their fees, leaving them in a position of struggling to cover their costs and feed their families.



Purchasing items with the fair trade seal supports a system that respects consumers and growers by setting standards and enforcing them.

Fair trade display

Impact on the Producers

Under Fair Trade USA's Agricultural Production Standard, farmers and workers benefit by receiving better working conditions, transparent trade terms, training on their rights, and defined contracts which—along with funds for community investment—help the community improve their lives in the present and the future. This translates into a system of empowerment for workers, consumers, and companies alike.



This technique is laid out in Fair Trade USA's Theory of Change, which details how the system provides more sustainable livelihoods for workers, which in turn strengthens businesses. Consumers can feel confident that the fair trade purchases they make promote sustainable business practices.

Impact on the Environment

One of the cornerstones of fair trade is environmental stewardship. Fair trade certified bananas have benefited the environment as well as workers. Fair Trade USA outlines how Community Development Funds (an additional amount of money given to the farmers for every fair trade banana sold) were used to create a more sustainable agriculture processes, better roads, and safe, convenient housing in Urabá, Colombia. One way the banana farmers of Urabá used their funds was to invest in a protection system of covering crops with bags to reduce the need for pesticides. They also invested in the strategic placement of boré plants to prevent soil erosion and protect waterways from runoff.

All over the world, fair trade products put an emphasis on minimizing the potential damage to the environment from farming and harvesting. The UK Fairtrade Foundation explains that in addition to reducing pesticide use, the initiative helps to train farmers on sustainable practices—including greenhouse gas reduction—and encourages environmentally friendly approaches to pest management, waste management, and biodiversity protection.

Fair trade bananas at supermarket

Use Your Buying Power

These fair trade facts give consumers confidence in knowing that by purchasing certified products, they are using their dollars to vote for a mutually beneficial system. When more money is spent on fair trade purchases, corporations take notice and may potentially take steps to be a part of the movement.



Everything from coffee to produce to clothing to snack foods come in fair trade varieties, and fair trade products are available at many popular outlets, including grocery and wholesale stores. Fair trade items are also available from the leading online shopping resources.

Of course, price is a primary factor in many consumers' shopping decisions, and there is no reason to feel guilty if coupon clipping and bargain hunting for the least expensive options are top priorities in your household. By becoming more informed about fair trade products and their benefits, you can better decide how and when to make those purchases.

Get Involved



After learning what fair trade is, you may want to explore other ways to get involved. You can volunteer to join one of the Fair Trade Campaigns in your community to advocate for the initiative in any number of settings (schools, libraries, town hall gatherings) or you can make a donation to help farming communities fight poverty.



The world is connected through our economic systems. Along with respecting all of the parties and environments involved, fair trade opens up channels of communication, revealing how each element affects the next. The more information is shared, the more consumers, corporations, farmers, and producers can better support each other in health, wellness, and prosperity.



How do you incorporate fair trade into your life? Let us know your favorite fair trade products on Twitter!

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons | Wikimedia Commons | Wikimedia Commons

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Why It's Good

By purchasing certified fair trade products, consumers use their dollars to vote for a system that supports people and the planet. Even the smallest purchase can help make the world a better place.