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A Brief Look At The History Of Fair Trade

Fair Trade is a model of long-term, ethical business operations that prioritize people and the environment. It is an important part of agricultural sustainability, economic development, and social justice.

Fairtrade empowers farmers and workers to have greater control over their livelihoods— the freedom to decide how they invest in their future. It is a movement promoting trading policies that benefit marginalized, small-scale producers of developing countries. Further, fairtrade supports improved wages, safe work environments, and sustainable development. The primary objective is to provide the farmers and craftspeople access to global distribution channels or international markets— assisting them to become self-sufficient in supporting themselves and their families. But of course, fairtrade is not limited to wages and workplace conditions. Most fairtrade organizations take bigger steps beyond fair prices— advocating for meaningful long term relationships, gender equity, democratic organization through collaborative endorsement, compensation policies, education and capacity building, prohibition of forced and child labor, and accountability and transparency. To put it simply, fairtrade provides long-term benefits to farmers and producers.

Fair Trade— The Beginning

The beginning of the Fair Trade movement started with Edna Ruth Byler in 1946, the founder of Ten Thousand Villages, who began importing needlecrafts from low-income women in South America. She laid the foundation for the Mennonite Central Committee, the first Fair Trade organization. Very soon, SERRV International in 1949 emerged to build fair trade supply networks in developing countries— distributing handcrafted times in non-profitable stores. 

While the fair trade movement started in the United States during the mid-20th century, it blossomed in Europe only in the 1960s but swiftly acquired traction. A movement based on a new strategy took the front line. The idea was based on profit margin being primarily connected to real costs of production with all producers having equal rights and access to market segments. By 1968, the slogan "Trade not Aid” gained international notoriety, eventually leading to the establishment of the first Fair Trade Label "Max Havelaar" in 1988. It allowed the consumers and distributors to track the origin of the items— to make sure the players at the end of the supply chain, i.e., the farmers/producers, are receiving the benefits. Max Havelaar was an independent certification that allowed the sellers to sell beyond the Fair Trade Shops and into the mass market, facilitating the access to connect with more consumers which also greatly increased fair trade profitability. The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) which was once the International Fair Trade Association (IFAT), emerged a year later in 1989. This was followed by the Fair Trade Federation (FTF), previously known as the North American Trade Organization (NAATO) in 1994. FTT is today the largest network of organizations in North America entirely oriented towards Fair Trade.

Then, Fair Trade USA, formerly known as TransFair USA, established its first "National Headquarters" in 1998 (it has since grown to become the United States' largest third-party certifier of Fair Trade commodities). Fair Trade USA along with the international "FairTrade" certification mark launched by Fairtrade International (FLO) in 2002 are now the two main organizations that certify Fair Trade products.

Modern Day Fair Trade Organizations

As you browse the grocery aisles or the shopping malls, you may notice a variety of Fair Trade labels. The prominent certifying organizations in the modern scenario are as follows:

World Fair Trade Organization

The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) is a worldwide network of smaller Fair Trade groups and businesses. It is based in the Netherlands and comprises around 370 member organizations and 40 individual affiliates from 70 nations across five continents. The WFTO has a five-stage guarantee system in place to ensure that all of its participants are adhering to Fair Trade principles and the organization's official Fair Trade standards.

Fairtrade International

How does Fairtrade Work?

Image Source: Fairtrade International

Fairtrade International is the largest Fairtrade organization in the world. It collaborates with over 1,200 producers in 74 countries, employing over 1.5 million farmers and laborers. Fairtrade International through a certification body FLOCERT certifies all of its members and enforces its standards. The FAIRTRADE Mark, the world's most well-known ethical badge, is licensed by Fairtrade America and can be found on over 27,000 products in 120 countries— the products include food, beverages, cotton, jewelry, and apparel.

Fair Trade Certified

Fair Trade USA, the largest third-party non-profit organization certifying Fair Trade products in the United States, is represented by the Fair Trade Certified label. Formerly known as Transfair USA, was once a part of Fairtrade International which ended in 2011 when it established its own standards and guidelines. Fair Trade USA promotes the model of fair global trade that benefits farmers, laborers, consumers, industry, and the environment, allowing for long-term growth and social development. The organization performs transaction audits done between US companies and overseas suppliers to make sure farmers and agricultural laborers who produce Fair Trade Certified products are paid a fair price. Fair Trade USA also conducts annual agricultural inspections to ensure that certified companies are meeting the strict socioeconomic standards. SCS Global Services, a third-party certifier, performs the inspections for Fair Trade Certified commodities which range from coffee, tea, wine, fresh vegetables, fruits, and textiles.

Fair for Life

Fair for Life is a third-party Social & Fair Trade certification program for farming, industrial, and commercial enterprises. It was established in 2007 by the Bio-Foundation Switzerland and the Institute for Market ecology (IMO) which was initially introduced to North American markets. The program is open to only those businesses that provide fair wages and working conditions to all of their employees, as well as their suppliers. It is not product-specific, unlike some fair trade programs that focus on a particular product and do not look into other products by the same company that isn’t fair trade. The certification is applicable on food, non-food, raw material, market-ready items, and even services. The Fair for Life Social & Fair Trade Program adheres to the principles of Fair Trade International (FLO) and the recommendations of the ISEAL social standard.

Fair Trade Federation

The Fair Trade Federation is a trade group dedicated to strengthening and promoting Fair Trade organizations in North America. It is a membership organization for enterprises in the United States and Canada that strictly follow Fair Trade standards. Individual businesses pay a membership fee to the Federation and use its label, demonstrating their commitment to Fair Trade ideals. To join the FTF, companies do not need to be Fair Trade certified, which implies they do not have to pay the fees that FLOCERT and Fair Trade USA charge for their programs. Members are, however, thoroughly assessed for their complete adherence to the Fair Trade Federation's Nine Principles — businesses that put Fair Trade at the center of their operations. They must demonstrate that all of their commodities comply with the organization's stringent code of practice. The organization is also a member of the Fair Trade Movement, which aims to create equitable and long-term business partnerships as well as chances for poverty alleviation.

Final Thoughts

Buying Fair Trade products certainly does not provide you with the same variety as having access to just about every item on mass-driven online platforms or shopping complexes. However, the offered products are of excellent quality which is beneficial for the people and the planet. Choosing Fair Trade products is wonderful way for pampering oneself while also helping others escape poverty— even switching a small portion of your purchases to Fair Trade items helps make a difference.

All of Terra Thread’s products are Fairtrade certified— check out our sustainable backpacks and more if you haven't already!