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What is Fair Trade?

During the last decade, consumers have been changing their consumption habits. Being aware about where the product comes from and how it is produced, means more than selective spending, it is about environment and communities too. 

According to the International Food Information Council’s (2020), “Nearly 60% of consumers say it is important that the food products they purchase or consume are produced in an environmentally sustainable way (similar to the 54% who said the same in 2019). 43% also say it is important that a food manufacturer “has a commitment” to sustainability and 40% say the same about knowing food was produced using farming technologies that seek to reduce the impact on natural resources” (1). Thus, derived products made with mindful farming practices are taking a bigger space in the market.

 

What is Fair Trade? 

Firstly, fair trade should be understood as a process, not as an end result. An important part of this process is the daily pursuit of sustainable development. As stated at UNESCO, (2015): “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”(2).

Characteristics of fair trade include fair wages, cooperative workplaces, consumer education, environmental sustainability, direct trade, financial and technical support, community development, respect for cultural identity, and public accountability (transparency).

"FairTrade" (as a brand or sponsor) was founded in 1983 as a non-profit organization and its label is only used by organizations, brands and products which are part of the Fairtrade International system.

 

"FairTrade" labels

FairTrade goods are certified by independent labelling initiatives that audit fair trade producers, retailers, and roasters and then grant those who qualify the right to use the fair trade label in exchange for a user fee”(3).

Thus, consumers pay a premium in exchange for a “guarantee” in ethical trade.

Misunderstanding occurs when the meaning of fair trade is distorted by brands who prioritize financial gain instead of the actions they are supposed to abide by.

According to "Fair World Project", the principles of fair trade are:

  • Long-Term Direct Trading Relationships
  • Payment of Fair Prices
  • No Child, Forced or Otherwise Exploited Labour
  • Workplace Non-Discrimination, Gender Equity and Freedom of Association
  • Democratic & Transparent Organizations    
  • Safe Working Conditions & Reasonable Work Hours
  • Investment in Community Development Projects
  • Environmental Sustainability
  • Traceability and Transparency

 

When reality goes beyond labels

Excess water use, unfair payment, destructive pest management, poor soil conditions and adulterated products are the major issues in the tea industry.

The Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition (GNRTFN), (16/06/16) notes that: “The tea plantation industry is labour intensive; the task of female tea pluckers involves hours of standing, exposing the women to several occupational hazards, such as pesticides and fertilizers” (4)

Another investigation, carried out by Thomson Reuters Foundation (2019) found that take-home wages in some tea estates certified by Rainforest Alliance and FairTrade were as little as 26 rupees a day ($0.11USD) after the deduction of debt repayments, salary advances and other fees (5).

This depicts two sides of the same coin. This is not the picture most people have in mind when they think about tea plantation, instead, consumers tend to rely on the label's promises. This controversial matter involves an extensive chain of resources (human and environmental).

On the other hand, there are also tea plantations which exhibit sustainable practices and work ethics that are applied - and even improved -  on a daily basis. In spite of this, it also seems that the path to achieve the goals involved in the "FairTrade certification program" are bureaucratically complex and expensive, meaning that many sustainable tea farms can not afford it.

Nevertheless, there is rising support of many independent communities devoted to sustainable agriculture. The awareness for a greener future is already making a positive difference through hands-on work and educational program initiatives. 

How can I start making a difference? 

Acknowledge that not all certifications and labels are exactly what they are meant to be is the first step. Make sure what you consume is not compromising the environment or communities by:

  • Purchasing locally produced teas.
  • Growing your own herbs for tea at home.
  • Choosing products with biodegradable/compostable packaging.
  • Composting tea leaves for soil nurturing in the garden.
  • Being aware about where your tea comes from and how it is produced.

 

Making the effort to mitigate the unfair conditions for tea workers, communities and environment starts from home. This way, we encourage everyone involved in the tea industry to keep questioning what is in their cup and improving alternative solutions adapted to environmental and social needs. 

 

 

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