How Fair Trade Works

The Fair Trade Movement

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The basic concept is simple, but enacting it in the world of international business is more involved. After all, you can't just hand the cashier at the candy store a few extra dollars and tell him to pass it on to the family who grew the cocoa.

The modern, fair trade movement began in the 1950s with Alternative Trade Organizations (ATO). Humanitarian groups started ATOs to help alleviate poverty in developing nations. They did this by cutting the middleman out of trade between small producers in the Northern Hemisphere and small businesses in the Southern Hemisphere. This meant more direct profits for workers in developing nations.

In 1988, Dutch ATO Solidaridad proposed a labeling system to help introduce products into mainstream markets without compromising consumer trust in their humanitarian efforts. Since then, fair trade has grown into a globalized initiative. A number of fair trade products ranging from wine to soccer balls are currently available. Product availability varies from country to country, but one of the most widespread and well-known fair trade items is fair trade coffee.

Coffee is a fluctuating market. As recently as 2001, the price dipped so low that the average coffee grower received only 45 cents per pound of coffee. However, fair trade buyers that year paid $1.21 per pound of coffee, better enabling coffee growers to purchase necessities [source: FLO]. Fair trade certification made this possible.

Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) oversees fair trade certification on the production end, inspecting farms and facilities in several countries. They ensure agricultural products are produced by small farms and that those involved are engaged in a democratically-operated cooperative. The farms must also follow basic environmental, health, safety, labor and human rights regulations.

To ensure these standards and to justify the higher-than-market fair trade prices, customers want to know which products they can put their conscious-driven spending dollars behind. National fair trade labeling organizations such as TransFair USA and the European Fair Trade Association work with the FLO to handle product labeling.

In some cases, the additional funds created through fair trade pricing go toward the improvement of local conditions, especially in cases where laborers have no ownership in production. This sum, paid in addition to fair trade prices, is called a social premium. These funds help establish scholarships, health care programs, better sanitation and small-business loans in some impoverished areas.

Fair trade products are often high quality or organic. But beyond these qualities, consumers are usually willing to pay more because they believe the producers have a basic human right to fair wages and living conditions.

Despite its humanitarian aims, the fair trade movement has its share of critics. On the next page, we'll look at some of the pros and cons of fair trade.