In Depth

52 ideas that changed the world - 9. Fairtrade

How paying farmers fairly went from niche to necessary

In this series, The Week looks at the ideas and innovations that permanently changed the way we see the world. This week, the focus is on Fairtrade:

Fairtrade in 60 seconds

Fairtrade is a movement based on the principle that farmers and workers in poorer countries deserve fair prices for their produce and labour. It champions decent working conditions in the developing world, and long-term sustainability both for communities and the environment.

The largest group in the movement is Fairtrade International, which owns the green and blue symbol familiar to ethically-conscious shoppers in countries across the globe. Companies who partner with the organisation can use the Fairtrade Mark on their products to signal to customers that they are paying their suppliers fair and sustainable prices for ingredients such as coffee, vanilla, sugar and cocoa, and are meeting Fairtrade’s environmental standards, says the Friends of the Earth website.

On top of guaranteeing fair prices for produce and labour, the foundation also pays out extra money to farmers and workers to invest in improving their communities under the Fairtrade Premium scheme.

More than 4,500 Fairtrade products are now available worldwide, with major global companies including Starbucks, Ben and Jerry’s and Lush among those who use Fairtrade-certified ingredients in some of their products.

How did it develop?

The fairtrade movement began in 1946, when US entrepreneur Edna Ruth Byler travelled to Puerto Rico, where she met members of a women’s sewing group set up by the Mennonite church to help struggling women provide for their children. After returning home to Pennsylvania, Byler began selling their needlework to her friends and neighbours.

By 1950, she was touring the country in her car, selling the embroideries and sharing stories of the women who made them. This evolved into the Overseas Needlework and Crafts Project, renamed Ten Thousand Villages in 1996.

In the UK, the first fairtrade project came about in the late 1950s when “the Quaker-led Oxford Committee for Famine Relief - now Oxfam International - began selling arts and crafts made by Chinese refugees in its shops”, says Encyclopaedia Britannica. The charity soon expanded its offerings to include handicrafts from across the developing world.

In the late 1960s, international government policies evolved away from simply donating to poorer countries and towards investing in projects to develop their long-term economic stability - a shift encapsulated by the new political agenda at the second session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in 1968, which promoted the concept of “trade not aid”.

The following years saw the spread of Alternative Trade Organisations (ATOs), which teamed up with development organisations operating on the principle of helping communities to help themselves.

The Fairtrade Foundation was launched in the UK in 1992, backed by international development charities, Fairtrade retail companies and social groups.

The foundation says their mission is “to connect disadvantaged farmers and workers with consumers, promote fairer trading conditions and empower farmers and workers to combat poverty, strengthen their position, and take more control over their lives”.

In 1994, the foundation introduced the Fairtrade Mark, which is now recognised by 93% of shoppers in the UK.

The movement continues to grow, with global sales of Fairtrade certified goods and products rising by 8% to almost €8.5bn (£7.9bn) last year, reports London-based news site Business Green.

How did it change the world?

Today, an estimated 1.66 million farmers and workers directly benefit from the Fairtrade movement, which guarantees producers a Fairtrade Minimum Price for their work and produce so that they can become more income-secure and less vulnerable to poverty.

In 2016, producers received a total of €158.3m (£146.7m) of extra funding through the Fairtrade Premium scheme, of which 33% went into housing improvements. Workers employed on Fairtrade-certified plantations and their families also benefit from investment of the Fairtrade Premium into education and medical facilities.

The environment benefits from Fairtrade investment, too. Fairtrade Standards educates farmers on sustainability and ways to protect their crops.

“In the past there were diseases on the trees,” cocoa bean farmer Asso Adome of the Coopaza co-operative in Ivory Coast told the Fairtrade Foundation. “We were taught and given products to treat them. These have helped increase production.”

However, the Fairtrade movement has faced scrutiny from critics who question the extent of its impact. These sceptics claim that “the fair trade label, whose initial aim was to empower local producers by identifying fair trade businesses and products, has been diluted over time and is now being used merely as a guarantee against exploitation”, says Encyclopaedia Britannica.

But “despite its imperfections”, the fair trade movement “continues to provide opportunities to marginalised workers throughout the world”, the encyclopaedia concludes.

The Fairtrade Foundation acknowledges that there is plenty more to be done, and emphasises that economic development is a slow process.

As the organisation notes: “Fairtrade is part of the long-term solution… even with Fairtrade certification, working on a banana plantation or a coffee farm is hard. There is no sunny side to trade injustice. So the fight goes on.”

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