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how fair is fairtrade?

Around 20 years ago, the first products were labelled with the Fairtrade seal - in the meantime, it is hard to imagine life without it. Coffee was the food that started it all, and it is still the best-known Fairtrade product today. There are thousands of others: chocolate, bananas, tea, juices and sugar, as well as non-food items such as cotton, flowers, footballs and gold. But what exactly does the Fair Trade label actually mean? How much really reaches the producers? How fair is fair trade?

Fairtrade coffee

What does the Fairtrade seal mean?

The Fair Trade label identifies products that comply with a wide range of social, ecological and economic criteria.
One core element is fair payment. Take coffee as an example: the world market price for coffee fluctuates significantly - and so does the amount that small farmers and cooperatives receive for their coffee. With conventional coffee, it is therefore possible that the proceeds of the harvest do not even cover the costs incurred for cultivation. 

The Fairtrade label, on the other hand, guarantees a minimum price so that the costs of cultivation and harvest are guaranteed to be paid. If the world market price is currently higher than the minimum price, the farmers naturally receive the higher price. (Incidentally, how high the current minimum price is per country can be viewed online ).

In addition, the smallholder organisations as well as the workers on plantations receive a Fairtrade premium . All participants decide together how this amount is best used: For example, for a local school, a health centre or new equipment to facilitate the harvest. 

The social criteria include requirements concerning rights in the workplace: For example, regulated working hours, the prohibition of child labour and the strengthening of trade unions.

Ecological criteria also play a role: the Fairtrade label is not an organic label, but it prohibits pesticides that are harmful to health and promotes conversion to organic farming with a premium.


Explained very simply: What does the Fairtrade seal mean?

The seal guarantees that this product was not produced under exploitative conditions:
Producers receive a fair selling price, are not discriminated against and no child labour is involved. Or even shorter: the product is produced under conditions that we expect for our own workplaces.

Who awards the Fairtrade seal?

In Germany, the seal is awarded by TransFair e.V.. The non-profit association also works to make fair trade products better known and to highlight the advantages of fair trade.

There are also national Fairtrade organisations in 21 other countries that pursue the same goals. Together with three producer networks, they are organised under the umbrella organisation "Fairtrade International" . Its board decides on the current conditions - premiums, prices, standards - and is made up of representatives of producers and national organisations in partnership.

Compliance with the standards is monitored by FLOCERT, an independent subsidiary.

Are products with the Fairtade label 100 per cent fair?

Yes and no. For products that consist of only one raw material (such as coffee or bananas), everything complies with the Fairtrade standards. However, there are also so-called mixed products that consist of several ingredients: chocolate, for example.

The following applies here: For a mixed product to be allowed to bear the Fairtrade seal, all ingredients that are available as Fairtrade ingredients must actually be Fairtrade-certified .

In other words, the Austrian milk in the chocolate is not Fairtrade-certified because the possibility does not exist - that is okay then (after all, it can generally be assumed that working conditions in Austria are comparatively good). But the cocoa beans and the sugar in the chocolate bar must meet the Fairtrade standards and be certified. 

These "as-Fairtrade-as-possible mixed products" then bear a Fairtrade seal with an arrow pointing to the back and further information.

Chocolate bar
Mixed products are as fair as possible.

Such a Fairtrade label with an arrow is also used for products with quantity compensation

In the case of a banana, the Fairtrade seal means that the producer has been paid fairly for that very banana. With some products, however, it is more difficult to trace them exactly: With juice, for example, it can happen that the fair oranges are pressed into juice together with non-fair oranges. In this case, it is not possible to stop all the machines in between and clearly separate the two producers; so when the juice is finished, it is no longer possible to trace exactly which share comes from whom.  

But that doesn't matter: the producer has brought oranges for 100 litres of juice, gets handed 100 litres of juice at the end and receives the Fairtrade wage for 100 litres of juice - no more and no less.

You could also say that the system works in much the same way as green electricity.

Is Fairtrade really fair?

The term "fair" is not protected by law - it is therefore also often used in other labels, which have completely different conditions and should therefore not be confused with the actual Fairtrade label.  

And of course there can be a long argument about what exactly is "fair" for all parties involved. All the criteria set for the label are ultimately a compromise and an attempt to address the individual conditions on the ground: It is decisive which country a product comes from, whether it is harvested by small farmers or on larger plantations and which variety it is. And indeed, there are also countries where a minimum price is not allowed at all.  

On the other hand, the premiums "must" not be too high in order not to drive up the selling price of the respective product. Fairtrade coffee is already noticeably more expensive than conventional coffee; if the price continues to rise, it will be bought less often. This is also and especially disadvantageous for the coffee farmers in the end.

These compromises to customers' willingness to buy play a role especially in supermarkets and discounters, where fair trade chocolate competes with unfair trade chocolate.  

Coffee maker
How much is coffee worth to you?

It is different in the world shop: The specialist shops for products from the Global South stock only fair trade goods. Those who shop in the Weltladen consciously buy from fair trade and are willing to pay more money for it than at ALDI and LIDL. Therefore, the conditions for these producers are even better, "even fairer", if you will. Those who have the choice should therefore always buy from the world shop.

Chocolate pieces on plate
Typical world shop product: chocolate.

The only problem is that worldshops have relatively few customers compared to the big supermarket chains. The Fairtrade label was developed to bring fair coffee and chocolate to supermarkets and to distinguish them from other, non-fair products. Here, the price pressure is greater, but the probability of being bought is higher. 

The Fairtrade label is therefore a compromise between "as fair as possible" for the producers and the "I'll pay this extra" willingness of the average customer. 

CONCLUSION: How fair is fair trade?

The Fairtrade label guarantees reasonable prices and working conditions that have been worked out together with the producers and are continuously checked by independent controls. It is always a compromise between the wishes and demands of all parties involved, but one that works very successfully overall and has demonstrably positive effects on the Global South.

The best way is to buy fair products in a world shop. For those who don't have this option, fair trade certified products in the supermarket are a great alternative.