When it comes to Fair Trade, you want to make sure you’re buying products with a paper trail, certifications, and verification. The Fair Trade organizations take certification very seriously and will revoke permission to use the logo from any farm or company that isn’t certifiable every year.
The question is, how can you tell if a company you’re considering buying from is certified fair trade?
Obviously, you can look for a logo on their products. But that’s not a viable option for long-term shopping. Until such time as the majority of products are certified fair trade, you’re going to be spending a lot of time and effort trying to even find vendors of fair trade products.
Luckily, there are a variety of apps and website directories that can help you find fair trade vendors you can use to shop for fair trade products.
Let’s talk about them!
What better source of information for Fair Trade-certified products could you have than Fair Trade International itself?
This web-based directory gives you a lot of options for filtering different types of businesses and products. This is important because, as of the time of this writing, there are over 11,000 businesses in the directory. You can type in the FLO-ID and search for a specific business, or you can browse through options like:
- Continent and location
- Licensing or certification status
- Certification scope (climate, hired labor, and other options)
- Type of product
When you look up a company, you can see specific information about them, including what certification body issued their certification, the products they offer, and more.
There are three large downsides to this app.
- It’s not an app. It’s a web-based directory, and that can be tricky to navigate when you’re on the go.
- The information it gives you is general; you aren’t looking into specific products but more into certification status and raw materials.
- Fair Trade focuses primarily on farms and the producers of raw materials, which means if you’re in the market for finished products, you aren’t going to have as much luck.
If you’re looking for information from Fair Trade International themselves, this is your primary source. Otherwise, you might want to look elsewhere.
One interesting note here is that Fair Trade did, at one point, have actual smartphone apps for searching their directories, called the Fairtrade Finder App. Released all the way back in 2011, this app was a powerful way to search for fair trade products near you.
Unfortunately, at some point, they retired the app. It’s likely just too much work to keep up with international app stores and app development in the ecosystem of smartphones that continually updates and changes architecture without warning. By providing the web database, they still offer all of the relevant information; it’s just not accessible via a specific, narrow-focus app on a smartphone or tablet.
The app also relied on users to identify, tag, photograph, and upload information about products around them in order to help build the database. While this is certainly a useful database to have, most people just want to shop, not to spend their time cataloging the inventories of stores. It’s not a big surprise that the app no longer exists.
The second option eschews the Fair Trade ecosystem and goes into the broader world of sustainable business.
One of the biggest drawbacks of Fair Trade International is its focus on farms and ingredient producers. Now, don’t get us wrong; they’re great, and they’re in a very important place in the overall ecosystem of global commerce. It doesn’t matter how sustainable manufacturing a t-shirt is if the cotton is grown in an exploitative way, after all.
B Corp is an alternative way to look at the ethics and sustainability of production. They have a different set of standards and a different way of certifying companies, but the overall end goal is the same: to promote sustainable, ethical, fair production of goods and services.
There are over 7,300 registered B Corps, and that number grows all the time. You can use the B Corp Search to find B Corps by name, or you can search for a given kind of product or service you want. This is more effective for consumers who want to find products or services but less so for companies looking for suppliers that are certified as ethical.
B Corps are very high in standards, but consequently, there aren’t nearly as many of them to search through, and a lot of them may not be relevant to your needs.
The Fair Trade Federation is another fair trade organization, but it’s not related to Fair Trade International. It’s also not itself international; they certified businesses and farms in the United States and Canada only. Their eligibility requirements can be found here.
The linked member list allows you to search through the various members who currently pay their dues to the Fair Trade Federation to maintain certification. They also have a related list of lapsed members, members who were certified for a while but may no longer pay their dues or have lost certification for some reason or another. It’s a very “shop with caution” list; some may simply have decided not to pay, while others may no longer qualify for certification.
Probably the largest drawback to this list is, again, the fact that it’s a smaller organization than the other options out there, with less name recognition and fewer brands on the list of certified organizations. If you can find anyone to work with or buy from, it’s plenty good enough – the ethical core of their efforts is great – but it’s relatively small.
Moving a bit further from the Fair Trade ecosystem, we come to EWG. EWG is the Eat Well Guide and has been a database of information on food products since at least 2014. The EWG Health Living Food Scores app is a smartphone app you can download that allows you to evaluate the products you’re considering buying and learn about how healthy, sustainable, and ethical those products are.
EWG evaluates products based on three categories of concerns. These are called NIP:
- Nutrition concerns, which are considerations revolving around the nutritional components of an item and how healthy they are compared to alternatives and similar products.
- Ingredient concerns, which are considerations about the ingredients used in the products you’re evaluating, including things like whether or not antibiotics, pesticides, or food additives have been added to the products.
- Processing concerns. Unfortunately, these aren’t about the processing of raw materials the way Fair Trade thinks of it; it’s more like processing as in the difference between raw sugar and processed white sugar.
EWG is a good way for consumers to evaluate the products they purchase every day, figure out which ones are generally worse than others, and find alternatives that may be healthier. Unlike something like Fair Trade or B Corp, though, EWG is mostly concerned with the end result and its impact on your health, not on the manufacture or production of the product, at least beyond the use of antibiotics and other unsustainable chemicals in production.
HowGood is “the world’s largest product sustainability database,” and it’s completely different from the other apps on this list. Instead of being aimed at consumers looking to find businesses or products to buy, it’s a SaaS platform for businesses themselves. If you’re a business and you want to sell products, and you want to make sure the goods, raw materials, or base products you buy are ethical and sustainable, this is a great app to use.
The app allows you to feed in information about your business, your suppliers, your raw materials sources, and more. It can then develop sustainability reports, track goals and progress towards them, and even track the marketing efforts you’ve made revolving around sustainability.
For brands, this can be an indispensable tool. For consumers, it’s not really useful or accessible. We’ve included it on the list because we know both groups of people visit our site and read our blog, so we’re covering all the bases.
The Drawbacks to Fair Trade Apps
You may have noticed that none of these apps are particularly comprehensive, robust, or valuable. This is because there are a lot of concerns and drawbacks to these kinds of apps and platforms.
The first and largest drawback is that they can be limited to just one of the many different fair trade and ethical sourcing organizations out there. While Fair Trade International, B Corp, and the World Fair Trade Organization are all very large and useful groups, they are just a few of the hundreds (if not thousands) of similar organizations that you can find all around the world.
Similar to this, the databases are often either a single organization’s list of members or are crowdsourced. Crowdsourced information is always going to be inherently limited because it relies on people around you to identify and upload information about the products or on companies to self-report, and that’s a large knowledge gap.
The second, and a related issue, is that most of these organizations are limited in their scope. Fair Trade focuses on raw material production, B Corp focuses on ethics in business practices, and EWG focuses on food; there’s no comprehensive way to evaluate every aspect of every product, good, service, or vendor out there. If green production, ethical production, sustainability, human rights, and all the rest were simple to evaluate, we wouldn’t be in the current global crisis we are, after all.
Note: At Ethix, we don’t show up on most of these lists, and it’s not because we’re lacking in the ethics department. There are a few reasons why we’re not on the lists. For one thing, they’re generally expensive. While paying dues allows the organizations to keep functioning and support ground-level farms and producers, it’s also a tall order for companies that might not have wide margins.
Another reason is that we aren’t solely focused on the fair and ethical production of products; we also focus on other aspects, like whether or not products are made with union labor or made in the USA. Each of our products has badges that represent the verification we can provide.
This is one of the biggest drawbacks of something like Fair Trade International for us; since not every product in our store is certifiably Fair Trade, we can’t gain Fair Trade certification, even though every product we offer meets our high standards for ethical production.
Do you want to talk more about it? We pride ourselves on our transparency and openness in every aspect of the production and manufacture of our products. Just drop us a line, and we’ll be happy to chat.
You also may have noticed that most of the items on the list aren’t apps. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – many “apps” are just limited web browsers tapping into an online database anyway – it does mean they aren’t as easy to use as tapping on an icon on your smartphone and pulling up the relevant information.
The bottom line is this. Should you trust these apps, databases, and lists? Certainly, as long as you trust the organization behind them, their lists are fine. Should you write off a company or brand that doesn’t show up on the lists? Not necessarily; there are a lot of reasons why an ethical and sustainable business might not appear on the list.
Now, here’s our call to you. Do you know of an app, list, or other fair trade resource that can find nearby products or companies and has a useful database for individuals? If so, please leave a recommendation in the comments so we can look it over.
Second, do you have a need for ethically produced and sustainably made products, like t-shirts, canvas totes, and others? If so, why not give our store a look? Every product is held to the highest standards, and we provide as much information as possible about the complete supply line to help you make informed decisions. Shop away!
Daniel Cardozo, CEO of Ethix Merch, is a passionate advocate for ethical promotional products. With a mission to transform global supply chains, he serves on the Labor 411 Foundation and Advertising Specialty Institute’s Promo for the Planet Advisory Board. Daniel is dedicated to empowering socially and environmentally-conscious consumers.