In the world of ethical consumerism, there are a number of different buzzwords and labels that float around. Free-range, organic, green, farm-to-table, Fairtrade; they’re all specific, reference different aspects of the entire process of manufacturing, and have different regulations attached to them.
One of the older labels you may see, and a label that applies to over 2,000 different brands and countless products, is Fairtrade. What is it, though, and how can you get certified?
What is Fairtrade Certification?
Fairtrade certification is a certification that certifies that your products are fair trade.
Yeah, that’s circular nonsense. But there’s a lot more to it than just that sentence.
First, Fairtrade is an organization, and it’s one of many. These organizations all work on roughly the same lines, part of the same networks, and most of them provide their own certifications. They all have roughly the same core ethos, however: that the products they certify follow ethical guidelines in the manufacture and, more importantly, the production of the raw materials for the products.
While they have a broad range of concerns, the largest and most driving concerns for most Fairtrade organizations center around the means of production. This includes farmers growing ingredients, workers in mines producing metals, processing facilities working with just and ethical labor, and manufacturing processes that don’t harm the environment any more than strictly necessary.
Certification can apply to two different things. First, it can apply to your products. When you certify your products, you are proving that you use ethical suppliers and ethical labor to produce your products and that the whole process is transparent.
The other thing Fairtrade certifies is the producers of the raw materials used in products. In particular, they focus on the farmers growing ingredients for products and foods and certify those as Fairtrade farms. Fairtrade farms meet their own standards and, in exchange, generally receive financial support to be able to continue upholding those standards when faced with competition that operates without them.
As a business owner, getting Fairtrade certification generally means using Fairtrade suppliers, along with verifying that you have an ethical process throughout your supply lines and the labor used to create your products. Once that is verified, you can certify those products as Fairtrade and use the name, banner, badge, and terminology as part of your marketing.
Who is Fairtrade America?
Fairtrade America is the American branch of Fairtrade International, one of the leading Fairtrade organizations in the world. When most people think of something being “fair trade,” what they think about is Fairtrade certification.
Fairtrade America is a large and public organization, and you can read all about them on their website.
They focus on a variety of different aspects of human rights and ethical production, including:
- Workers’ rights throughout the production process.
- Gender equality in all levels of production.
- Eliminating child labor around the world.
- Prioritizing fair pay across the board in production.
- Emphasizing eco-friendly methods for farming and production.
- Supporting communities centered around these kinds of production.
Above, we mentioned the example of metals produced in mining; these aren’t actually part of the scope of Fairtrade, with one exception: artisanal to small-scale mining operations. There are other labor rights and certification agencies for the larger mining industry. Fairtrade, specifically, focuses on farming and the production of foods, as well as handicrafts and cosmetics. The two most prominent examples you’ve probably seen before are chocolate and coffee, both of which are immensely popular worldwide and have historically been dominated by abusing oppressed communities and using slave labor. Fairtrade fights that.
Are There Other Fairtrade Organizations?
Fairtrade International is the core organization for the specific organization of Fairtrade. This same organization supports a variety of national-level organizations, including Fairtrade America, Fairtrade Canada, Fairtrade Ireland, and so on.
There are also a variety of similar organizations that operate either in specific countries or internationally. Some may exist because Fairtrade International doesn’t have a local branch; others operate in competition with Fairtrade, though “competition” isn’t truly accurate since they work towards the same general goals.
- Afghan Women’s Business Federation, a collection of unions and organizations in Afghanistan focusing primarily on women workers throughout the country, and in particular on the carpet weaving business.
- No Sweat, an organization based in Great Britain that focuses primarily on the elimination of sweatshop labor practices in UK products.
- Clean Clothes Campaign, the largest labor union in the garment industry, with partnerships with 250+ organizations in Europe and worldwide.
- Fair Trade Federation, or FTF, another global promoter of fair trade production.
- World Fair Trade Organization, a certifying body and organization that works with a variety of others in the same space.
- UTZ, sometimes called “Fairtrade Light” because it operates on the same principles as Fairtrade, but with less protection and less stringent certification rules.
This just scratches the surface. And, while these organizations are nominally in “competition” with one another, realistically, they all tend to work together and promote the same sorts of end goals. They may not be official partners, but when they strive for the same end result, it doesn’t matter who “wins” the race to reach it.
All of that said, for the purposes of this post, we’re looking at the actual Fairtrade organization, and in particular, Fairtrade America.
Who Performs Fairtrade Certification?
Fairtrade International works with the company FLOCERT to provide and maintain certifications. FLOCERT began as a team intending to create a rigorous and objective certification process for Fairtrade International and spun off into its own thing later.
Today, in addition to providing certification for Fairtrade, they also verify living wages and provide a handful of other services. You can read more about them here.
What Are the Requirements to be Fairtrade Certified?
Fairtrade operates on three core pillars. These are Economic, Social, and Environmental. Here’s what they have to say:
“Fairtrade sets economic Standards for manufacturers to more equitably distribute the benefits of trade. These include things like paying the Fairtrade Minimum Price as well as the Premium, requiring traceability of the product through record-keeping as well as transparency in trade relations, and providing pre-finance if requested by producers.
Social Standards are typically at the co-op or Producer Organization level. Fairtrade does not allow exploitative child labor or any discriminatory employment practices. Our Standards cover things like working conditions (such as having employment contracts), the ability for workers to organize, and democratic voting as part of their membership.
Our environmental Standards aim to minimize producers’ impact on the planet while still meeting them where they are both in terms of their geographical realities and their business growth. Our Standards ban the use of dangerous pesticides and GMO seeds, protect natural resources, and encourage eco-friendly cultivation. We also incentivize organic farming through an increased Premium and Minimum Price.” – Fairtrade America.
These are broad, general, ethical stances. Moreover, much of it focuses on the producers, the farmers, and not on the people getting their products certified. If you’re a business and you’re looking to have your products certified, what are those standards specifically?
In this case, what you’re looking for is the Trader Standards from Fairtrade, which can be found here. This is a 43-page document that includes a lot of detail. It’s worth reading all of it, but the core points a merchant needs to know are:
- You must be audited to receive certification, and you must accept periodic re-audits.
- All products you purchase to sell and all materials you purchase to use in your products must themselves be Fairtrade certified.
Basically, Fairtrade is meant to start from the ground up. The most rigorous requirements are placed on farms and producers. From there, each step of the chain of custody between the producer and the eventual consumer can be certified as Fairtrade themselves if they only purchase from Fairtrade-certified producers. Further, it’s all meant to be traceable and transparent for anyone to look up and verify.
Furthermore, if you’re interested in how Fairtrade develops their standards and what those standards are for producers, you can read all about them here. Fair warning: this is all very dense and technical and mostly won’t apply to vendors and businesses selling products unless they make those products themselves.
What is the Process of Being Fairtrade Certified?
Generally, being Fairtrade certified means complying with the rules for Fairtrade certification in the trader standards document and contacting Fairtrade America for an audit. If you need to make changes to your suppliers, processes, or other elements of your business to achieve certification, do so; from there, it’s all about maintaining it. A big part of Fairtrade certification is maintenance. If a supplier loses certification, you are meant to stop doing business with them regardless of any active contracts you have; otherwise, you, too, lose certification.
To actually begin the process of certification for your business, all you need to do is fill out the form here and wait. Fairtrade will reach out and begin the process. You can also go directly to FLOCERT and fill out their form as well if you prefer.
How Much Does Fairtrade Certification Cost?
Fairtrade Certification has an initial fee for the audit and other costs and then ongoing annual fees. The initial setup fee can, for example, be somewhere around $600 to apply, $3,300 for an audit and certification, and $400 for processing; after you’ve achieved certification, you have the same fees minus the application fee.
Now, these numbers are just pulled from a sample calculation. You can actually use FLOCERT’s fee calculator to calculate something more precise for your business. The fees will vary depending on various factors and your role in the production chain.
Why are there fees at all? Look at it this way: the money to pay the ground-level workers fairly and assure quality of life has to come from somewhere. By assessing fees from vendors and traders at all levels of the supply chain, that money can be redistributed back down to the farmers without having to rely on regulating specific initial purchasers to buy at higher prices. It distributes the costs throughout the entire ecosystem and ensures a more complete and robust level of support.
Fairtrade does try to balance their fees for any business so as to be acceptable. If they had to assess such high fees on you that you couldn’t sustain your business, well, that wouldn’t be very good for the ecosystem and their goals, would it?
What Are the Benefits of Fairtrade Certification?
As a business selling Fairtrade-certified products, you benefit from the name and the ethics attached to the label. Certification is rigorous, which means greater trust among consumers, and that trust – and level of consumption – is growing every year.
This is most noteworthy in areas such as chocolate, coffee, and sugar production, which have historically been dominated by abusive and oppressive labor violations, slavery, child labor, and more. These are prominent areas where consumer interest is high. However, since the label and certification apply to everything once you’re certified, it can boost other product sales as well, just not necessarily to the same degree.
Beyond businesses like yours, though, Fairtrade certification benefits everyone in your supply chain. Most notably, it benefits the people at the ground level doing the farming, harvesting, and producing of goods before they reach your store. The better people are treated at the bottom, the better everything built upon their labor becomes.
Overall, Fairtrade certification helps improve global health, labor rights, workers’ rights, and economic equality while minimizing abuses, child labor, sweatshop labor, and other human rights issues. Similarly, Fairtrade also focuses somewhat on ethical and eco-friendly production of ingredients and farming processes, which helps promote green production as well.
Since Fairtrade certification is so rigorous and ongoing, it means you’re about as far from greenwashing as you can be; you’re putting your money where your mouth is.
If you’re in a position to do so, Fairtrade certification can be an excellent step to take and puts you in good company with thousands of other businesses. Even if you can’t, though, you might be able to work with a different fair trade organization for similar results.
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.