Fair trade went through many incarnations before it reached our modern understanding of it: it started almost two centuries ago with boycotts of goods like sugar and cotton produced using slave labour. Starting in 1897, The Salvation Army’s Hamodava Tea Company aimed to pay tea growers a fair price for their crop, and help them purchase plantation land to run cooperatively. There were further initiatives until the 1960s, when the United Nations adopted an ideology of ‘Trade not Aid’ with developing nations, and various Alternative Trading Organisations (ATOs) were founded to ensure the fair trade of individual products such as handcrafts, textiles, coffee, tea, cocoa, and sugar.
Also in the late 1960s, fair trade labelling began with a handful of organisations, initially using disparate standards and systems. In the 90s action was cranked up with the creation of the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO), which launched the International Fairtrade Certification Mark in 2002 – with its now-familiar logo of a stylised figure in silhouetted on a green and blue background. The head of the figure brings to mind the yin-yang symbol.
The Fairtrade Mark
To use the Fairtrade Mark, a business must submit information and overviews of its supply chain from grower to exporter. Individual products will then be certified depending on whether they meet Fairtrade standards. Most certified items are food — from apples to yoghurt — though gold, flowers, beauty products, cotton clothing and other cotton products like cotton wool can also be Fairtrade.
Fairtrade Fortnight 2022
This year, Fairtrade Fortnight runs from 21st February – 6th March. There is a plethora of online events plus a walk in London, the world’s largest Fairtrade city — more on that below — on Friday, 25th February and installations at Arts University Bournemouth in Poole between 11am-5pm on Friday 4th March.
The Fairtrade Town movement began in 2001 in Garstang, Lancashire and today there are Fairtrade Towns all over the world, including where some of the Grain team live: Shaftesbury, Chesham, Dublin, and Edmonton, Canada.
The Fairtrade Mark is not the only label ensuring fair trade practices; for example, Fair Trade Certified is another scheme. Some brands are moving away from the Fairtrade Mark. In May 2017, Sainsbury’s piloted tea labelled ‘Fairly Traded’, prompting a backlash from the Fairtrade Foundation and a storm of complaints from consumers. Even after pulling the Fairtrade Mark from certain teas, Sainsbury’s remained the UK’s biggest Fairtrade retailer.
A few months later, Green & Black’s launched a range of chocolate diverging from its previously exclusively organic and Fairtrade offering which dates back to 1994 when their Maya Gold chocolate was the first UK product given the Fairtrade Mark. The non-organic, non-Fairtrade Velvet Edition range uses a certification scheme set up by its parent company, Mondelēz, called Cocoa Life.
And just a few days before Fairtrade Fortnight, news has emerged that Starbucks is transitioning away from Fairtrade. Supply Management reported that, ““Starbucks has confirmed it will continue purchasing Fairtrade coffee globally, [but] there will be a gradual reduction of some commitments over time in Europe, the Middle East and Africa as it looks to increase its focus on its own in-house programme.”
Fairtrade sales are on the rise
Notwithstanding the defections, sales of Fairtrade products in the UK increased 14 per cent in 2020. Consumer demand is increasing for social and environmental equity in the form of ethically-made products, and individuals and companies alike find themselves faced with a myriad of certifications and initiatives. To make progress on both social and environmental fronts, we will need more stringent regulation and ideally fewer, not more, certifications and standards. Rather than launching in-house programmes that can cause confusion, retailers can better maintain their credibility by using trusted certifications and working together with the organisations behind them, like the Fairtrade Foundation, to make any improvements needed.
Co-written with Izzy Bull.