Ethical Fashion News

A Sober Take on Fairtrade

A sober take on Fairtrade
Meg Yarcia
Written by Meg Yarcia

I have, on many occasions, entertained the idea of playing host to intelligent beings from elsewhere in the Universe, who came in peace to learn about our planet. I imagine being asked the following questions, and already I am composing answers in my head: What do Earthlings need the most to survive? Food. How do you obtain food? Some of our people take them from the land and the sea. Who are they? The farmers and the fisherfolk.

They would probably ask to be brought to our farmers and fisherfolk for a courtesy call, under the impression that they are the most powerful Earthlings. At this point I will be struggling to explain one of the greatest ironies of human ways: The people who bring food to our tables are some of the poorest people in the world.

Fairtrade production

Here we are in the 21st century, possessing remarkable knowledge of food production, and yet failing to ease hunger particularly among farmers and fisherfolk. Across the globe, they belong to the most marginalized sectors of society, living on incomes below the poverty standard, and in the most humble dwellings too.

The “alternative” framework

Enter Fairtrade, whose advocates present as an alternative trade framework. On their website, Fairtrade International argues that the concept is based on a partnership between producers and consumers, and that when farmers can sell on Fairtrade terms, it provides them with “a better deal and improved terms of trade,” and “the opportunity to improve their lives and plan for their future.”

Fairtrade International is the organization that set the Fairtrade standards for ethical trade. Today, it upholds standards for small producers, for hired labor, for contract production, for traders, and for the climate.

In essence, these aim to promote socially, economically, and environmentally sound production and trade practices: Fairtrade-certified organizations are supposed to champion good working conditions, equitable profit distribution, fair and transparent trade practices, and sustainability. All lofty standards we should aspire for, without question.

The costs of Fairtrade

Being and buying Fairtrade-certified both come with a price, however. On the production side, becoming certified means going through the lengthy and stringent audit process, and putting in more resources towards sustainable practices. Relatedly, some are concerned that this process only furthers the marginalization of small farmers.

Critics of Fairtrade also point to how it is cheaper and easier for larger producer organizations to become certified. Others noted that this encourages overproduction, with producers leaning towards increasing their supply to cover the premium for better-paid farmers and workers.

Fairtrade garment production

On the consumption side, the concerns are equally compelling. For example, Fairtrade argues that it “offers consumers a powerful way to reduce poverty through their every day shopping.” But this is a problematic claim.

For one, it enjoins people to choose Fairtrade when it is not always the right decision. Is it, for example, ethical to buy a Fairtrade product flown in from another continent, when a sustainably grown alternative is available locally? Should disadvantaged shoppers be made to feel guilty for selecting what fits their budget over Fairtrade? Is a Fairtrade-only lifestyle even possible for a working-class household?

Not the solution

Effectively, Fairtrade’s claim shifts the conversation regarding poverty alleviation towards the act of consuming, when the economic problems we face today are caused by skewed relations of production. And skewed relations of production cannot be significantly altered by simply changing the brands we buy.

There is nothing essentially wrong with the “vote with your wallet” exhortation, but appropriated by the free market apologists, it simply becomes an effort to draw people away from the resistance movement, and turn them into consumers again.

Great danger also lies in capitalists using the existence of Fairtrade to argue that all we need is a workaround, not fundamental changes to a broken system. That none of the bigger evil agro-industrial corporations have really so much as criticized Fairtrade is very telling indeed. Isn’t it that capitalism has historically allowed pockets of dissent to exist, as long as they do not present real threat?

Nevertheless, I have zero doubt that Fairtrade is founded to present an alternative to the ways of capitalism. I do believe we need such an opportunity to envision the free society of our future. And that’s how we should view it: A rehearsal for a new society, nothing more, nothing less.

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About the author

Meg Yarcia

Meg Yarcia

Meg is a Manila-based activist with a Master’s Degree in Psychology from the University of the Philippines. She is a director at Sinag Microfunds, a non-profit that promotes access to education among disadvantaged Filipino youth, and a volunteer for People’s Solidarity and Education Tours, an organization that holds people’s exchange programs to promote international solidarity. Meg holds many years of experience as a communications specialist, researcher, and project manager for local and international organizations, in both development and corporate environments. She loves music, visual arts, and the written word, and is passionate for endeavors where these are used to improve the plight of the marginalized.


  • Love this Meg! So much attention is given to Fairtrade and other “eco” or “ethical” labeling/certification schemes that it promotes them as THE solution that will give us the sustainable products and economy that we want. But in reality it is far from that. Instead it is simply a component of the existing broken system that, while having some positive impact, that impact is ultimately quite small in comparison to the large-scale production systems that affect millions of people and ecosystems around the world. As the certification scheme wants to continue to grow (it is a business after all), it needs to have a model that can and will scale, which it was not originally created to do- this is where we see the dilution of the standard and more and more ease in getting certified.

    If we really want to tackle the core issues that are systemic in supply chains globally, we have to throw paint at a totally blank canvas and come at the problems from entirely new angles. We have to get over this new trend of relying solely on labels to justify ethical purchases and shift the entire way that we engage with companies and communities.

    Thanks again for posting this, after working in the audit industry and the social/environmental compliance world for so many years, I often cringe when I see so many eco-bloggers relying so heavily on the Fairtrade conversation when trying to push people to shift consumption practices. I know all too well how many holes actually exist in the verification process of these certification programs (from doing work in the field), for one, but even more it allows the conversation to stop, it allows people to think, okay well if I just buy Fairtrade then I am doing enough. It’s not enough, we need to engage, evolve and reimagine the entire system!

    • Hi Greta, thanks so much for taking the time to read this entry and for your well-thought-out comment!

      Exactly, buying Fairtrade, while often backed by the best intentions, is not THE solution to the ills of the global economy. We need to target the unsustainable production practices first and foremost. I love how you phrased it (and I wish I thought of it for my article, haha!): We need to reimagine the system.

      Do keep visiting; we promise to write more on the topic! 🙂

  • A nice and thoughtful post, but it also leaves me with “well what should I do then”
    I also believe that systemic change is what is needed, but I cannot reimagine the system, and I need some choices to use while others find the best solution.
    Here I think fair-trade is a great choice. I mainly use it for chocolate, coffee, tea, rice etc. Things that are imported anyways, so here there is no local alternative (in denmark)

    • Hi Johanne! Thank you for your very honest comment, one that deserves this equally honest response: I definitely had the same question.

      I do like to point out that my main point of contention against Fairtrade is about how it is marketed, not the concept itself. And to me it’s important for us that to articulate this concern strongly even as we “do what we can,” so that the powers-that-be know that we are not buying into their PR. I’d like them to know that even consumers who are trying to choose the better options are aware that their role in changing society is not defined only by what they spend on.

      You’re right, we need choices while others – presumably our policymakers whose job it is to address these problems – find the best solutions. I believe the next step is to ensure that our government and business representatives are indeed working to do so. Thanks for stopping by and reading! 🙂

  • Fair trade also encompasses small social enterprises that partner directly with communities giving them the opportunity of employment in developing countries with high levels of unemployment and little opportunity to market their products. They are not linked to the labelling organisation.

    • Hi, Rosemary, apologies for this late reply! 🙂 It’s good that you pointed this out, which allows me to clarify that the article I wrote was in fact about the concept of “fair trade” as promoted by Fairtrade, which is the labelling organization that you referred to. That said, I beg to differ that the “fair trade” movement is not linked to the organization: The label is what the company receives after complying to supposedly stringent standards of production, treatment of workers, environmental sustainability, etc. And consumers are invited to opt for these brands with the “Fairtrade” label, while drawing on the principles of “fair trade.” Hope this makes it clear, but if not, do leave a reply and I promise to respond immediately! 😀

  • Hi Meg,

    Really interesting article. In fact it’s the second article I’ve read in the last two days on this topic – just by chance via my fb news feed.

    A couple of comments: Had it not been for the fair trade movement, I would not have become aware of the issues with conventional trade practises. I imagine that creating large scale change requires the mobilisation of a large community group to lobby policy makers and mainstream brands – however the first logical step would be to make people aware of the issues in the first place to create the critical mass.

    Secondly, in spite of its faults, at least when I buy a fair trade-certified product I can feel reasonably assured that the company is not taking me for a ride.

    For me, fair trade doesn’t fuel my consumption – it allows me to have an option to minimise harm and do a little good when I do need to buy something.

    I agree that fair trade prices can preclude large sections of the community from participating in the movement. However the mainstream population is noticing that their ‘cheap’ products don’t necessarily last very long. ‘Made to last’ may have more appeal from a household finances view point.

    Fair trade is a valuable touch point because shopping is a relatable experience, but it probably needs to be combined with activism, philanthropy, and also increasing producer involvement in the entire supply chain.


    • Thank you, Michelle, for the visit, and for the thoughtful response!

      First of all, I am happy that the fair trade movement has helped bring to light the need to change some trade practices. In case I was unable to communicate this well in my post, I meant to say that fair trade as a concept promoting improved production practices and conscientious consumption is good, but we always need to keep in mind its limitations, especially as certain ill-intentioned parties would want to coopt it, and use it to undermine more radical ways to achieve the same goals. And as you yourself argued sharply (I’m removing the ‘probably’), the movement “needs to be combined with activism, philanthropy, and also increasing producer involvement in the entire supply chain.”

      Thanks again!

  • Thanks for writing this!
    We’ve been feeling this way for some time… We went to a fair trade international meeting in India and unfortunately we were so put off by the “barriers to entry” for a small/startup business that we had to abandon the idea of certification.
    What also hurts is that some shops only want to carry fair trade certified products, which puts our business at a disadvantage.
    So I would agree with you, it has its good intentions but not without some serious flaws 🙂

    • Thank you too, Andy! 🙂 Always good to hear from people who experience first-hand what we here at Eco Warrior Princess try to discuss. We can imagine how tedious the certification process could be, and how it may actually lead to further marginalizing well-meaning small-medium entrepreneurs like you. Wishing you and your startup success, capitalism’s evils notwithstanding!

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