Is Fair Trade growing or shrinking?

The ethical shopping label is facing new competition from companies opting to create their own certification programs.

You probably know what the Fairtrade symbol looks like. It has a blue and yellow yin-yang, two halves separated by a black swoosh. It appears on coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas, dried fruit, and other tropical food products. For years, it has offered a mark of reassurance to shoppers that the product they’re buying comes from farmers who have been paid fairly for their work. It has other implications, too, such as no children working on farms, better environmental stewardship, and, perhaps most notably, an annual premium paid to farming communities for investment in programs and infrastructure of their choice.

However Fairtrade’s time seems to be over, according to a recent Long Reads article. Writer Samantha Subramanian describes how companies have begun withdrawing from the Fairtrade program, which threatens its entire existence.

She writes that Companies are losing faith in labels such as Fairtrade – losing faith in their ability to secure the future of farming and the future of commodities that drive corporate profit, but also losing faith that these independent stamps of sustainability carry any value at all any more.

From people on the ground in countries, like Mexico, we have heard similar concerns.

It’s not because companies unconcerned about sustainability. If anything, the topic is hotter than ever and being able to prove that they’re doing something about it matters tremendously. There is a general sense, though, that Fairtrade just doesn’t cut it anymore, that it’s not offering the kind of tangible benefits that make paying the minimum commodity prices and annual premiums worthwhile. Recent studies have found that the financial benefits don’t trickle down to hired help and that some children can still be found laboring on farms.

Several organisations announced that it would stop selling Fairtrade tea and replace with its own in-house certification called Fairly Traded, it was met with outrage; but as a representative explained, “We were paying these premiums, but it wasn’t clear where the money was going. Fairtrade isn’t good at keeping tabs on it. It wasn’t always going to medicines and schools and things like that, as we found through our own investigations.”

In response, companies have developed their own in-house certification programs., however the ture impact of those is questionable. For example; some in-house programs do not give premiums directly to communities to use as they wish. Funds must be approved for use by a committee appointed by the company, an arrangement that is uncomfortably reminiscent of colonial times.

In-house certification screams conflict of interest, of course. When a corporation is left to “mark its own homework” (think Volkswagen and Boeing), evidence of cheating abounds. And while companies may say they want greater ‘flexibility’ in contrast to Fairtrade’s fairly rigid standards. It has also been suggested that flooding the marketplace with labels and logos, each one claiming its own slice of the ethical pie, will lead to fatigue among shoppers – a state that would benefit corporations. Once people start thinking that “any claim of sustainability is an improvement over no claim,” they become susceptible to greenwashing.

It’s too soon to suggest that Fairtrade is on its way out, but not too soon to say that it needs your attention. Do you support buying Fairtrade products or believe more in investigating which other labels and programs you do support? Stay critical and follow your own values!

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