Why Fair Trade Means Protecting the Environment, Too

This is the first article in a series on “The Future of Fair Trade,” written in collaboration with 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.

Organic Fair Trade bananas

When people think of Fair Trade, they might think of fair prices for farmers, better labor standards, or maybe even safe working conditions – but what people often forget about is that Fair Trade is equally invested in protecting the environment. Fair Trade not only helps improve farmers’ living and working conditions, but also helps them become better stewards of the land. Farmers who struggle to make ends meet are often forced to engage in cheap agricultural practices that compromise surrounding ecosystems.

We at Fair Trade USA believe that in order to improve producers’ living and working conditions, their environment must also be clean and healthy.

Strict environment standards
Rigorous environmental standards encourage farmers to better protect their delicate ecosystems and reduce the use of harmful chemicals.  Here are a few examples of the environmental standards that farms must comply with in order to become Fair Trade Certified:

  • Soil and Water: Enhance soil by applying sustainable irrigation practices such as crop rotation; source water sustainably and reduce water use over time
  • Biodiversity and Carbon Emissions: Report current benefits and future goals for ecosystems and current methods of carbon emission reductions
  • GMOs: Use of GMOs are strictly prohibited
  • Agrochemicals: Handle agrochemicals safely and minimize their use
  • Pests and Waste: Develop sustainable and safe management plans for pests and waste through farmer education
Mangos for biodiversity

Fair Trade and Organic
Fair Trade and organic certifications are complementary and both show a profound commitment by farmers to environmental responsibility. While Fair Trade Certification does not require organic certification, it does support organic farming with training for producers and a higher price incentive for organic products.

In fact, many producers invest their Fair Trade premium funds in organic certification, which has led to outstanding results: over half (62 percent) of all Fair Trade imports into the United States are also organic, and 52 percent of all Fair Trade producer organizations world-wide hold organic certificates. Ultimately, reaching for these standards encourages the production of goods that benefit you, farming communities and the earth.

A benchmark for quality
By adhering to strict Fair Trade standards, farmers are not only able to make great strides in environmental sustainability, but also in the quality of their products. With the Fair Trade premium for community investment, farmers can spend more time and money on things like environmental education, training, quality testing and equipment efficiency. Through the development of sustainable growing and harvesting practices, quality crops are produced at minimal cost to our fragile ecosystem. Here are some inspiring environmental impact projects that were made possible through Fair Trade:

Coffee farmers, CoopeTarrazú, Costa Rica

Environmental Education
CoopeTarrazú is a coffee farming cooperative located in the central mountains of San Marcos de Tarrazú, which is perhaps the most famous coffee-growing region in Costa Rica. In 2006, CoopeTarrazú established the Coffee Culture Quality of Life Sustainability Plan to track their environmental impact, implement better practices, and create a culture of environmental respect among members and children. Using the Fair Trade premium, CoopeTarrazú has developed a program that provides trainings, capacity building, and environmental leadership to its members. The key to their program is their focus on raising awareness of ecosystems through a strong educational curriculum for both adults and children.

“Before, my son never used gloves while he worked. But through the program he learned to protect himself while applying any agricultural inputs. For that I am so glad.” – William Naranjo Barrantes, Board Member of CoopeTarrazú Cooperative.

Sustainable Agriculture Project

Associação dos Costas, Brazil
Associação dos Costas is an association of small-scale coffee farmers located in the state of Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil.  Thanks to Fair Trade, Associação dos Costas has developed an Environmental Impact Management project, which is an investigative assessment of the sustainable use, storage and control of agrochemicals on their Brazilian farms. The project resulted in the reduction of glyphosate use, incentives for the rational use of fertilizers and soil remediation, a complete overhaul of chemical storage, increased monitoring of crops, recycling campaigns for the return of empty containers of chemicals and the implementation of land conservation initiatives.

Within two years of implementing the project, the coffee farmers of the Cooperativa Dos Produtores de Café Especial de Boa Esperança Ltda are now using more sustainable inputs and techniques in almost all of their production.

“Today I am conscious of the environment. I am aware that in doing so, I am improving my quality of life and my family’s quality of life. I feel proud to participate in the association. I am valued as a producer and am making new friends and acquiring new knowledge about sustainable agriculture.” – Antonio Fernandes, Associação dos Costas Member

Fair Trade USA

4 responses

  1. It is interesting that Fair Trade USA does not mention their recent self-removal from the international Fair Trade system in early 2012 in order to pursue their own agenda by extending standards to plantations in coffee and other products. Numerous studies have shown and the UN has even declared that the way to improve environmentally is to transition to agroecology / small scale farming, nothing that plantations are able to do. Support Authentic Fair Trade and learn more: http://www.equalexchange.coop/small-farmer-campaign

    1. Hi Jessica.  I thought Fair Trade USA did a fairly good job explaining their separation from Fair Trade International in this article from earlier this year – http://www.triplepundit.com/2012/01/fair-trade-all-fair-trade-usa-plans-double-impact-2015/ … I can certainly see why some people have issues with larger farms being labeled as fair trade, but I think there’s also a strong argument that larger farms have a roll to play.   

      I’m not an expert in the subject, however.  Nonetheless we welcome your perspective and I hope that this series can produce some productive dialogue.

    2. Hi Jessica,

      Thank you for posting. We appreciate your support for Fair Trade and know that you would not take any actions which would harm the more than 1 million small-scale farmers currently working with Fair Trade USA.

      Like Equal Exchange, we agree that small farmer cooperatives are the backbone of the Fair Trade model; Fair Trade USA and our partners have invested millions of dollars in programs to strengthen cooperatives and farming communities around the world, many of which are environmentally focused. Cooperatives have always been and will always be the vast majority of our business.

      As for the suggestion that Fair Trade cannot work (or help protect the environment) on larger farms, Fair Trade USA, FLO and Equal Exchange, who currently all source tea from large Fair Trade Certified tea estates, have more than a decade of experience showing that Fair Trade can provide real impact to farm workers and the land on which they work. It’s important to remember that the same rigorous environmental standards that apply to cooperatives apply to larger farms. Our first and only certified coffee estate in Brazil is a 100% organic farm, and their Fair Trade certification will allow them to deepen their commitment to environmental training, conservation and reforestation. We applaud farms of all sizes that are taking strides to protect the environment.

      It is true that working through cooperatives to protect the environment is wonderful, but the reality is that less than 10% of global coffee supply comes from small farmer cooperatives. The rest comes from workers on large farms (who do not own land), or independent small farmers (who cannot join a cooperative). We believe that these people should also have opportunity to become better stewards of the land through Fair Trade environmental standards, training, and education.

      Thanks again for your thoughts, and if you have any additional questions please don’t hesitate to email me directly. 

      Jenna Larson

  2. The two producer groups featured in this article are doing amazing work to protect the environment and benefit their communities.  Coopetarrazu in Costa Rica and Dos Costas in Brazil are examples of how farming communities in partnerships with buyers and consumers can make a difference for people and planet.

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