What Is Fair Trade? Overview and Consumer Tips

From coffee to bananas to cotton, fair trade foods and goods aim to uplift small-scale producers.
Fairtrade Certified Oranges
Andrew Fox / Getty Images
Fair trade is a global movement that strives to provide standards for how products like food and clothing are grown, produced, and sold. These standards help ensure equitable trade by directly connecting small-scale producers in developing nations to buyers in the developed world. Without the proverbial “middleman,” consumers can enjoy ethically produced goods and foods without paying an additional premium. More importantly, workers in fair trade operations are guaranteed rights, receive fair pay for their labor, and work under safer conditions.
The aim of fair trade is to empower workers and reduce global poverty by promoting sustainable economic development and honoring traditional production techniques. Here, we explore the history of the fair trade movement, the certifications designating such practices, and the places you can find fairly traded goods and foods.

A Brief History of Fair Trade

When American volunteer Edna Ruth Byler visited Puerto Rico in 1946, she fell in love with the handmade lace of the local women. Despite their obvious talent and the many hours the needlework required, these women lived in poverty, so Byler decided to bring the pieces back to the States to sell, then return the proceeds directly back to the women. By 1958, she had opened the world’s first fair trade store, (originally named Self Help Crafts), which stocked goods from artisans across the Global South. Today, Ten Thousand Villages remains the largest fair trade retailer in North America.
Soon, other organizations launched similar alternative trade efforts to support small-scale producers. Established in 1949, the non-profit (SERRV) began helping European refugees displaced by WWII to sell their handicrafts. By the late 1950s, more fair trade shops and organizations had sprung up across Europe and continued to grow for the next 20 years. In the 1970s and 1980s, fair trade expanded in both Europe and North America and included more than just handmade goods. Other commodities (cotton and flowers), as well as food (including coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas, sugar, and spices), began being traded in a similar manner. During this time, informal networks in the Global North coalesced into formal organizations like the , the , and the , all operating under the same vision for an equitable and sustainable future. 
By the 1990s, fair trade certifications had become standardized under the auspices of . Products labeled fairtrade (as a single word) meet these credible, ethical, internationally recognized standards and help create demand for fair trade goods in developed nations. , first celebrated in 2002, highlights the contributions fair trade has made to help elevate workers, stave off the effects of climate change, promote economic and community development, and eliminate global poverty.

Fair Trade Labels and Certifications

Fair Trade Certified coffee in a French press
Fair Trade Certified is one of several logos indicating the standards under which coffee is grown. Jupiterimages / Getty Images
Thanks to a growing interest in conscious consumerism, more and more people want to spend their money on business practices that do more than just earn profit for a company. With that interest comes a glut of fair trade labels and certifications, all purporting to offer similar benefits to both producers and consumers.
Fairtrade International and ’s iconic blue and green yin and yang logo remains the market's most identifiable fair trade certification. Over 30,000 products like coffee, tea, clothing, and textiles carry this mark, guaranteeing these goods and foods were produced under Fairtrade’s rigorous standards and have been verified in an independent certification process. 
Similarly, products have met globally recognized sustainable sourcing certifications. This swooshy green seal guarantees that your food and drink (and even your clothes from outdoor brand Patagonia) were produced under safe working conditions, meet standards for environmental protection, and support sustainable economic and community development.
The ’s abstract globe logo appears on two labels: guaranteed fair trade and First Buyer guaranteed fair trade origin. While both indicate that the products themselves were produced under the WFTO’s fair trade principles, the First Buyer label may be used by organizations that source from WFTO members; the final products have not been verified under WFTO’s guarantee system.
North American stores, coffee shops, and products can boast the ’s blue and white logo. This trade organization has been a member of the WFTO for many years, and companies and cafés with this designation meet the FTF’s code of practice.

Outside of these bigger organizational bodies, individual companies also offer their own versions of fair trade. For example, , developed with , has sold nearly 100% ethically sourced coffee since 2015. But, as Treehugger’s Katherine Martinko has previously reported♔, these well-intentioned certifications also face major shortcomings. An improvement in productivity doesn’t necessarily translate to better wages or working conditions for farmers, nor does it guarantee that communities can use the income generated to foster community development on their own terms.

Critics argue that these in-house certifications bypass onerous requirements that prevent some producers from joining larger fair trade organizations. The point of the strict mandates, however, is to ensure that power and money wind up in the hands of producers and not buyers in the Global North. 

How to Shop Fair Trade

With so many companies greenwashing🐟 their sustainability efforts, it can feel overwhelming to ensure that every purchase you make has been grown under best practices for people and the planet. But with a bit of effort, you can easily incorporate fair trade values into your consumption habits.

Look for a Fair Trade Logo

Instead of researching the supply chain for every cotton t-shirt or bag of tea you purchase, keep your eyes peeled for the labels from the world’s largest fair trade organizations. Fairtrade, Fair Trade Certified, World Fair Trade Organization, and the Fair Trade Federation all sport iconic seals that let consumers know the products meet international standards that protect producers and the planet. 

Shop Eco-Friendly Stores

One of the easiest places to find fair trade items—certified or not—is at retailers who sell climate-conscious apparel and gifts. If you don’t have a Ten Thousand Villages in your town, consider shopping online♔ through smaller stores that cater to ethically-inclined consumers.

Buy Local Produce

The aim of fair trade is to connect growers with consumers. By purchasing your produce at a local farmers market or through a consumer-supported agriculture (CSA) program, you’re effectively doing the same thing, albeit without official certification. Like official fair trade products, eating local produce is often less expensive than grocery store fruit and veg with the added benefit of connecting consumers to their bioregion, encouraging seasonal eating, and reducing your overall carbon footprint.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What is an example of fair trade?

    Coffee is perhaps the best-known example of a fair trade food. Fair trade coffee💞 producers grow beans under a set of standards that guarantee worker rights, pay fair wages, and promote sustainable and equitable development through international trade.

  • What are five principles of fair trade?
    In general, fair trade certification organizations agree on several operational principles: direct trade with producers, fair payment (based on a local living wage and the actual cost of production), safe working conditions (without exploitative or child labor), transparent and sustainable supply chains, and investment in community and economic development.
  • What is the difference between fairtrade and fair trade?
    The terms "fair trade" and "fairly traded" describe the international effort to combat global poverty by supporting direct, equitable, and sustainable trade between producers in the Global South and consumers in the Global North. As a single word, "fairtrade" indicates food and goods that are produced under the extensive economic, environmental, and social standards set by the Fairtrade International system.