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What Does Fair Trade Certification Mean?

Whether you have shopped ethically for a long time or are new to the movement, there is still some confusion about the issue of certification. Here is the question – what does Fair Trade certification mean?


Certification Gives Accountability

Each Fair Trade certifier sets out to empower global workers, farmers, and artisans with wages that are fair for their community and ensure safe working conditions. Each goes about this in a different way, so their criteria may vary.

A certification is a guarantee to the buyer. In a developing country, there may be fewer labor laws or less enforcement, so a certifier tells shoppers that the company follows the ethical standards that it claims.

Much like Organic or Kosher, an outside party provides standards and periodic audits to make sure that shoppers are getting the product that is promised.

If you purchase Organic bananas, you would probably like to know that someone (a certifier) has defined what “organic” means and verified that those processes were followed. Without that certifier, the word becomes a buzzword, thrown about for advertising purposes, and this takes away any real meaning to the term.

Fair Trade certification means that all of the certifier’s Fair Trade standards have been followed. The specifics vary by certifier, but they generally include priority of the workers’ safety, a living wage relative to the community the items are produced in, and equal opportunities for all classes and genders.

If a company claims it is self-certified, it needs more research. “Self-certified” can mean they are choosing NOT to be accountable, but it is not always a bad thing. Some companies prefer to be accountable directly to their consumers, which is a great idea. However, this also means you may need to do more research to determine how and if they are following fair standards.


Defining Fair Trade

There are several major certifiers in the United States and around the world. They have fair wages and working conditions in common, but there are differences too.

Over the years, various companies have shifted how they define “fair,” and certifiers have done the same.

The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) is an international authority that has defined 10 Principles of Fair Trade, and these are a good place to start. These principles explain the WFTO’s answer to the question, “What does Fair Trade certification mean?” Here is a brief summary.

  1. Opportunity for disadvantaged producers: doors of opportunity are available to farmers and makers of handmade gifts from around the world.
  2. Transparency and accountability: stakeholders are informed of company practices, and employees are part of the decision-making process. There is good communication in the entire supply chain.


  1. Fair Trading: business is done for the social, economic, and environmental well-being of marginalized producers, and it does not maximize profit at their expense. This includes long-term relationship factors like prepayments and guaranteed work, avoiding duplicate designs of other producers, and preserving cultural identity.


  1. Fair Payment: mutually agreed upon by all parties, according to the market as well as the Local Living Wage. Equal pay is provided for equal work by women and men. Workers are welcome to join unions.


  1. No Child Labor and Forced Labor: if children are involved, this is monitored and does not affect the child’s well-being, security, education, and need for play.


  1. Non-Discrimination, Gender Equity, & Women’s Economic Empowerment: everyone gets a chance. Women are included in leadership, and needs of pregnant and breast-feeding mothers are considered. No discrimination is allowed based on race, caste, national origin, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, union membership, political affiliation, HIV/Aids status or age.


  1. Good Working Conditions: companies are doing at least the minimum to comply with local and international labor laws regarding safety and working hours.


  1. Capacity Building: developing skills and abilities for workers. Buyers may also provide training and education to contribute to the local community.


  1. Promoting Fair Trade: increasing awareness in the world for greater justice in trade. Honest advertising and marketing is also important.


  1. Respect for the Environment: wherever possible, companies use sustainable sources, buy locally, seek to reduce waste and use renewable energy, and use recycled or biodegradable materials for packaging. Pesticides are organic or used in very small amounts.


Why Multiple Certifiers?

We have learned the principles above. So what does Fair Trade certification mean? Certifiers start with similar Fair Trade principles, but their applications are different. There has been some disagreement in the Fair Trade industry, and as you can imagine, this is normal when many passionate people are working on a movement.

Some certifiers require that artisans and farmers are members in a worker-owned cooperative, and all items must be handmade. In this model, every person gets a vote and a voice in all decisions before a company can be certified Fair Trade.

Doing business with worker-owned cooperatives means that the people making the items have a say in what is “fair,” and democratic processes allow for everyone to make decisions that affect the whole group. Where workers may have been exploited or abused in the past, Fair Trade provides a new and better way to access outside markets and sell fantastic products.

In other cases, certifiers have opened the doors wider to include larger plantation and factories. The owners select the fair wage according to the local area and the country’s laws. A community premium is added to the price of their goods, and the workers vote on projects to improve their community with this additional fund – for example: schools, clean water, or healthcare needs.

This larger model has its benefits, but it does not provide ownership to each individual worker. Similar to a large corporation, the power rests at the top of the hierarchy. This also means that the people at the top decide what is “fair” for their community, and they may or may not be accountable to the workers they supervise. If you trust the leaders of the organization, doing business in this way can work well for everyone.


Which Parts are Certified?

As more companies seek to help workers and/or use the Fair Trade name in their marketing, fair labels can be confusing.

If you see something with a Fair Trade label, keep reading for the fine print. Who certified it? Which parts are certified? Is it the entire product?

In food products, it may be the case that only one or two ingredients are certified. In clothing, sometimes just the term “Fair Trade sewing” is used.

We recommend finding those products that are ENTIRELY Fair Trade, and that are certified as fair by a reputable organization.


Which Organizations Are Best?

The Fair World Project has provided a helpful guide to learn about the various certifiers and their criteria, and to answer to those who ask what does Fair Trade certification mean? Here are a few of the highlights from their analysis.

Fair World recommends these strong, third-party Fair Trade labels:

-        Fair for Life: requires a high number of ingredients to be fair before certifying a product, keeps strong environmental standards, and also a long-term commitment from buyers. Companies are not required to have democratic governance but do involve producers in price negotiation.

-        The FairTrade System: workers and artisans have a strong role and set minimum prices, strong requirements for gender equity, and certifies small operations only in many crops, to give small farmers a competitive edge over large.

-        Small Producers’ Symbol (SPS): created by and for small-scale artisans and farmers. We love that the producers took the initiative to create this!

And labels to approach with caution, as they may not be Fair in all capacities:

-        Fair Trade USA: as the largest certifying organization in the United States, we would like to ask more. Companies with human rights violations are allowed to continue to use the label, farmers and artisans are not owners or involved in regulations, no long-term buying commitment is required, and small organizations are not protected from larger companies.

-        Rainforest Alliance: often confused with Fair Trade, this label is primarily environmental and does not focus on labor standards.


Spreading the Word

You have great power to share Fair Trade products and the Fair Trade message with your friends and spread the movement.

Hopefully this article helps so that, when a friend asks you “What does Fair Trade certification mean?” you can explain: a certifier commits to us that an ethical company does what it says it does.

Thanks for joining us on this journey to learn and shop Fair Trade! Our online Fair Trade store is a good place to start.

For more information on Fair Trade labels:

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