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Fair Trade
by Mike Allan on Jun 27, 2014 - 12:35 PM EDT

Hey everyone,

The topic for this second food systems post is fair trade! Before we get started I wanted to clear something up. Fun Fact - fair trade refers to the broader concept of fairness and decency in the marketplace, whereas Fairtrade refers to the specific certification from Fairtrade International (FLO), which Fairtrade Canada uses as well.

EWB has been a long time supporter of fair trade. The Canadian Fair Trade Network (CFTN) venture was one of EWB’s first ventures, officially launching in 2011 with Sean McHugh taking on the role of Venture Lead. EWB chapters have taken on major leadership roles on campuses and in cities, and with CFTN have been major players in achieving Fair Trade status on 8 campuses and in 19 cities and towns across Canada. This is just the tip of the iceberg--CFTN and EWB chapters are actively working to achieve over 80 other certifications in the coming few years!1

For those of us who are less familiar with CFTN, it has emerged from a nascent venture to a full-blown non-profit organization working with civil society and industry stakeholders to advance awareness and support for fair trade in Canada. It supports collaboration and best practices within the fair trade movement to increase Canadian commitments to international social responsibility.

We all have a general understanding of fair trade, but what really is fair trade? Fair trade is a global movement that has been around since the 1940s that deals with inequity within trade, focusing primarily on agricultural products from developing countries. Simply put, fair trade works through co-operatives to guarantee fair prices and working conditions for producers in places where social standards may not protect producers. It creates longer term contracts, establishes minimum wages and pre-harvest credit to create security.

Fair trade is about making markets work differently--something EWB is working to accomplish through its small and growing social business portfolio. It improves relations in the market between developed and developing nations and gives power to the beneficiaries, while stimulating economic growth. The allocation of premiums through fair trade is decided democratically by the members of the respective co-ops, and often goes to support efforts in education, health, farming techniques and infrastructure.

One aspect of fair trade that is often overlooked by the general public - mainly because they do not know - is the focus on environmental sustainability. Environmental and societal impacts are actually treated with equal importance in fair trade. Soil, water, waste, agrochemicals and biodiversity are some of the things that have strict regulations under fair trade.2

Although there’s a steadily growing amount of research that supports fair trade3, there was a study published recently that was very critical of fair trade and claimed that it did more harm than good, even more harm than facilities with no certification. This study received massive media coverage, being addressed in outlets such as The Globe and Mail, CTV, and CBC.

The CFTN has published a response to this article, where they address the study’s significant assertions, stating that the study was only of two countries and it is not fair to label all of fair trade based on this small-scale study. Furthermore, the study looked at hired labour situations only, rather than the impact of the co-op or estate as a whole. The CFTN also pointed out that the article used relatively weak samples; they included a tea co-op that sells only 1% of their crop as fair trade, and a flower estate which lost its certification in 2011. (A series of additional responses can be found at the bottom of the CFTN response).4

FLO has very regular studies done led by independent research institutions, and they publish their results, acknowledging where they need to improve.2 Some other common criticisms of fair trade include that it does not address oversupply, the premiums paid are not going directly to farmers, the long-term effects of fair trade are not beneficial or sustainable, and that fair trade discriminates against small farmers who are resistant to becoming a part of a co-op.5 Fair Trade Canada addressed some of these claims, and there are many more responses available online.

    Another common criticism is that fair trade products cost more.6 Now that fair trade has been around for awhile, economies of scale are being achieved and the price gap between fair trade goods and non-fair trade goods is small, and still diminishing. The price difference that we see now is primarily because we’re paying for better quality goods (fair trade products are normally higher quality) and not because of the label, although there is generally still a slight markup.7 To date, there are 1.3 million producers in over 70 countries who are working through fair trade to better their futures.8

    It’s important to understand the criticisms of Fairtrade if we are to support it. Fairtrade is an imperfect system (unfortunately, most systems are…), but it is one that is constantly evolving and changing to best address the needs of the producer.

    A big part of fair trade in Canada is the Fair Trade Campus and Fair Trade Towns campaigns. There are three requirements that must be met in order to achieve Fair Trade Campus status. They are availability (having Fairtrade products available throughout the campus), visibility (providing opportunities to learn about fair trade, find it, and discuss it), and the last is having a committee made up of a student representative, a faculty member, a purchasing manager from both the university/college and student union (if applicable), and a top level university/college VP or their delegate (to ensure that momentum continues and the fair trade presence on campus grows).9 Becoming a Fair Trade Town requires meeting a few more goals and the extras are awareness and education, and community and political support both in name and policy.10 The CFTN and FTC are both trying to address criticisms about fair trade openly by releasing responses when an issue is raised. With the CFTN playing a central role fair trade is growing exponentially in Canada.

Did You Know:

  • Fairtrade Canada (FTC) is the leading certifying body and only member of FLO in Canada
  • There are many more products than just Fairtrade coffee and chocolate! From sports balls to wines to fruits, check them all out, along with where to buy them here!

Additional Resources:

Food for Thought:
How can we promote fair trade without giving people the idealistic point of view that they are “saving the world” - that’s to say, helping them understand that their actions are helping to improve on piece of a much bigger system that they’re part of?

Feel free to contact me directly at if you have questions/comments/concerns or leave a comment.


Mike Allan

CFTN. 2020 Vision. December 18th, 2013.
Fair Trade Canada. Environment.
3 Lamb, H. Fairtrade Q&A on SOAS Report. May 16th, 2014.
4 Tarling, B. CFTN response to SOAS report on Fairtrade in Ethiopia and Uganda. May 28th, 2014.
Zelmer, M. Quick Thoughts on Old Arguments. January 16th, 2014.
Fair Trade Resource Network. Basics of Fair Trade. 2014.
Fair Trade USA. Fair Trade Certified Products Top the Charts for Quality and Sustainability on GoodGuide. February 8th, 2011.
Fair Trade Foundation. Facts, Figures, & Resources. 2013.
CFTN. Fair Trade Campus Published Standards 2.0.
10 Fair Trade Canada. Fair Trade Towns Action Guide. February, 2012.

Miriam Hird-Younger, Aug 18, 2014 - 11:33 AM EDT

I often stay with a farmer in Ghana, Mr. Appiah, who is a fair trade cocoa farmer. He is part of the Kuapa Kokoo cooperative that owns part of Divine chocolate. Being a fair trade farmer does give him an extra few cedis per bag of cocoa that he sells, he also gets some other perks like a free cutlass or boots. But I would say the biggest benefit for him is his sense of pride in his work. He is proud to be a fair trade farmer, to actually own a part of a company that sell chocolate in Ghana. Being part of this cooperative has added greater dignity to his life and his livelihood. That, to me, is a huge impact. 

You can see more on this story in my blog post here: