Fair Trade Goes Full Circle on Supply Chains

This is part of a series on “The Future of Fair Trade,” written with the support of Fair Trade USA. A 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, Fair Trade USA is the leading third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the United States. To follow along with the rest of the series, click here.

Rwandan coffee grower Mukantelina Soline is able to pay for school fees and electricity with the extra income she earns from her Fair Trade cooperative
Rwandan coffee grower Mukantelina Soline is able to pay for school fees and electricity with the extra income she earns from her Fair Trade cooperative.

In honor of Fair Trade month, Fair Trade USA created a great infographic to explain how fair trade really works to improve workers’ lives and, in turn, the health of our ecosystem. While certifications like Organic ensure that farmers and a consumer’s family won’t be exposed to harmful pesticides, Fair Trade USA focuses on the producers and the well-being of their families. What organizations like Fair Trade have found is that a focus on the health of workers far up the supply chain leads directly to a higher-quality product and a healthy planet. That is to say, Fair Trade goes full circle. Here’s how they do it.

Improving lives

Fair Trade means that workers — from farmers to factory workers — get a fair wage for the goods they produce, through a guaranteed minimum purchase price. Workers on Fair Trade farms also have the right to organize into unions if they wish and the right to safe working conditions. Forced child and slave labor are strictly prohibited.

Workers and farmers decide collectively how to spend the Fair Trade premium on community development: building schools, clinics, improving roads, offering school scholarships, or whatever the community needs.

Chemonges Janet, a single mother of 7 children, says her Fair Trade co-op has helped her learn to compost for fertilizer, get new coffee  trees when old ones decline, and she also received an eco-friendly stove through the community development premium
Chemonges Janet says her Fair Trade co-op has helped her learn how to protect the long term health of her land through tips like using compost for fertilizer

With each year that passes, each Fair Trade community strengthens, improving life for its members en masse.

Protecting the environment

Fair Trade also protects the environment directly through sustainable farming requirements and prohibitions on harmful agrochemicals and GMOs.  Additionally, the Fair Trade standards require that Fair Trade organizations “develop a strategic approach to integrated pest
management, the safe use and handling of agrochemicals, responsible waste management, protection of soil and water and biodiversity, and reduction of energy and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Indirectly, the fair trade model pays farmers a living wage, which means land owners can invest in sustainable agricultural practices like crop rotation and allowing land to go fallow, which will protect the sustainable resource over time.

In one example from a coffee grower in Honduras, the process of becoming Fair Trade itself had a positive impact on the environment: The farmers switched to processing coffee cherries in a central facility instead of each farmer processing cherries at home, which meant less pollution and more drinking water for the community. The central facility uses non-potable water from a nearby river rather than the town’s drinking water to process the cherries. In addition, they are treating and filtering their wastewater so that it doesn’t pollute the river when it is returned to it.

Ensuring quality

Environment and social benefit are all well and good, but at the end of the day, the most important thing for consumers is quality. They aren’t buying if the products aren’t up to snuff. Fair Trade USA knows that and that’s why product quality is embedded in their mission. Twenty-five percent of the Community Development Premium must be earmarked for investment in quality and productivity.

Jenna Larson, public relations manager for Fair Trade USA, explained how Fair Trade leads to better coffee in a recent article:

Farmers today understand that investing in quality is critical to their long-term survival in the business. Similarly, coffee buyers know that working closely with producers through Fair Trade is a great way to develop the quality of the coffee they serve to the world.

Farmers are like anyone else. They want to do good work and believe in the products they produce. The Fair Trade price floor allows them to invest in quality. In turn, the Fair Trade USA label becomes a brand consumers can trust to indicate quality, which means further incentive for Fair Trade USA to ensure high-quality products carry the label. For example special grants from Fair Trade USA, allowed coffee growers in Peru to invest in quality control equipment and research to resist coffee leaf rust. The difference in quality becomes obvious when one looks at the difference in equipment available to Fair Trade growers:

On the left, a wet mill owned by Jose Isidro Lara's father who is not a Fair Trade coffee farmer, and as such had limited resources to invest in his personal wet mill. On the right is the wet mill Isidro Lara built with the premiums from being a part of a Fair Trade collective.
On the left, a wet mill owned by Jose Isidro Lara’s father who is not a Fair Trade coffee farmer and as such had limited resources to invest in his personal wet mill. On the right is the wet mill Isidro Lara built with the premiums from being a part of a Fair Trade collective.

So, it’s obvious that Fair Trade is a good choice to make whenever you have the opportunity. Do your part and look for the label during fair trade month and beyond!

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 Images courtesy of Fair Trade USA

Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit and editorial director at 3BL Media. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC to Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

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