What is Fair Trade and why should we care?

Everyone’s heard the term Fair Trade. The words conjure images of coffee, chocolate and happy farmers with fresh produce advertised on a product. Most consumers have an idea that Fair Trade products are probably a good choice, but maybe they’re not sure exactly why. And with 86% of millennials looking for responsibly sourced products, Fair Trade seems like a no brainer. But what exactly is Fair Trade and is it really more than just a marketing ploy to get consumers to feel good about their purchases? I spoke with three experts to get the scoop: Maya Spaull, VP of Apparel and Home Goods at Fair Trade USA; Jennifer Gootman, VP of Social Consciousness at West Elm and Rebecca Van Bergen, Founder and Executive Director of Nest, a non-profit that supports women artisans globally.

what is fair trade and why should we care?The reason for some of the confusion is that the term Fair Trade can be thrown around as a blanket term for alternate methods of commerce – even those as simple as tourists buying from local artisans and bringing the goods back home to sell. But let’s start at the beginning. The Fair Trade movement began as early as the 1950’s when Europeans and Americans traveling to different countries observed that local artisans and farmers were struggling to cover the cost of their businesses. Most of these travelers would purchase some of those products and return to Europe or the US to sell them for a higher price, then bring the profits directly back to the artisans and farmers.

But clearly that process can be open to exploitation, without anyone able to confirm if the profits really went back to workers or more cynically, straight into the pockets of the tourists who brought them back. That’s why in the 1990’s, when Fair Trade USA founder Paul Rice was working with coffee farmers in Nicaragua, he wanted to get involved in creating standards that could govern the way that Fair Trade was monitored across the globe. This work served as the foundation for what we now know as Fair Trade Certification.

Rice returned to the US and founded Fair Trade USA in 1997, bringing the certification model to large companies who sold commodity goods like cocoa, bananas and tea. The organization began to educate corporations on why it was important not only to sell more ethical products under Fair Trade terms but also to educate consumers by using the Fair Trade Seal on products to increase awareness. Some of the earliest companies to get on board with Fair Trade were Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Numi Tea and Whole Foods Market.