Published 3 years ago.
About a 9 minute read.
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We caught up with Peg Willingham, newly minted Executive Director of Fairtrade America, to clear up the confusion around the concept of “fair trade”; and hear why Fairtrade is more important than ever.
For over 20 years, Fairtrade International has been
working to secure decent working conditions, fair prices and better terms of
trade for the nearly two million commodity farmers in the Global South that
produce some of our most commonly used food and textile crops.
We caught up with Peg
newly minted Executive Director of Fairtrade
to clear up the confusion around the concept of “fair trade” and learn more
about why Fairtrade is more important than ever.
Peg Willingham: Great question! A few months ago, when I joined Fairtrade
America, well-intended family and friends sent me congratulatory gifts of
chocolates and coffee and earrings labeled as direct trade, or fairly traded,
or fair trade
I can’t blame them for thinking they had nailed it, and I certainly appreciated
their generosity. However, after thanking them (and, of course, eating those
tasty chocolates!), I told them how proud I am to be joining Fairtrade — the
longest established global certifier with the highest and most trusted
standards. I explained that many brands they enjoy, like Ben &
have made the commitment to be Fairtrade certified because they recognize the
value of knowing how their ingredients are sourced.
Thousands of products around the world are certified by Fairtrade International;
demonstrating that businesses and consumers care about the people who grow and
harvest the food we eat, the coffee and tea we drink, the clothes we
and the flowers we put on our tables (the full list of brands and retailers we
work with in the US can be found
Fairtrade-certified brands share our vision that these commodities, which are
primarily grown in developing countries and consumed in wealthy ones, should be
traded on fair terms.
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Fairtrade, first and foremost, means paying a sustainable price so producers can
thrive, not just barely survive. Ultimately, everything — climate adaptation,
child labor, workers’ rights — all circles back to farmers and workers having
enough money to invest in themselves and their futures, which in turn
strengthens the supply chain that companies rely on.
Companies should certify with Fairtrade to provide credibility, accountability,
guidance and assurance on their sustainability efforts. Fairtrade’s
certification tackles the three pillars of sustainability — social, economic and
environmental. Fairtrade is a true partner for companies looking for a
sustainability certification that addresses all of these, has a proven track
record, and continues to grow and adapt to the current environment. Our history,
expertise, and global reach make us the most reliable and effective.
PW: My anecdote about my family and friends highlights the fact that while
shoppers want to support ethically and sustainably sourced products, there is an
ever-growing array of claims that sound better than the reality behind them.
This is not about fearing competition — it’s about wanting a truly fair deal
for the producers who deserve it; and it’s about giving shoppers choices that
accurately reflect their values. A related challenge is that, unlike the
“organic” label, the term “fair trade” is not regulated; so, a company can put
words on packaging without needing to define or explain what they really mean.
The blame doesn’t fall entirely on companies, who generally want to do the right
thing. Some organizations are happy to charge companies for a certification that
would not hold up well under careful scrutiny.
While it’s encouraging that companies find value in promoting their connection
to “fair trade” as a concept — by not fully committing to sourcing from a
certified Fairtrade producer, paying on Fairtrade terms, and allowing
independent audits of their claims, companies erode trust. When companies use
“fair trade” as a marketing term, as opposed to truly certifying, it is a
disservice to the farmers who work so hard to meet Fairtrade’s rigorous
standards and may expose those companies to reputational risk when their claims
can’t be corroborated. Shoppers don’t like to be fooled by empty rhetoric.
PW: Companies of all sizes find value in Fairtrade certification, although
global brands can benefit in particular from the fact that the Fairtrade
International system operates around the world. We’re a one-stop shop for them.
A key to long-term success is for a company to be clear about what they’re
hoping to get out of Fairtrade certification. From that point on, we can work in
partnership on a solution that feels right and targets the issues they care
The Fairtrade mark communicates assurance to shoppers, which can be a
competitive advantage on shelf. A recent Nielsen
showed that fair trade chocolate and coffee sold at five times the rate of
conventional products — so adding Fairtrade to your brand makes a lot of
Certain product categories are at higher risk from serious problems like child
so brands selling those goods need a trusted, rigorous certifier to help them
monitor and remediate this in their supply chains. The Fairtrade International
system has a strong track record of combatting child labor by investing in a
youth and community approach, as well as targeting the root of the problem —
Finally, most brands work with us because they feel in their organizational
bones that it’s the right move to support the farmers and workers at the
beginning of their supply chain in economic, environmental and social
sustainability. The breadth and richness of our
standards are really attractive to those
looking for a more robust solution that covers many areas with one sweep.
PW: Our core, always-on program is meticulous, comprehensive certification.
We handle the supply chain mapping, auditing and labelling for all our brand
partners. Really knowing where their products come from is a huge benefit for
companies who mainly deal with traders and other intermediaries, obscuring the
stories and people behind their goods. By being on the ground, we can provide
deeper color and storytelling ability for brands that want to highlight the
people behind their products. Decades of visits and audits have created a robust
photo, video and asset library with images, voices and narratives from more than
100 countries. We let the farmers speak for themselves, which is the ultimate
test of authenticity. This is also in keeping with another key element of the
Fairtrade movement: Producers represent 50 percent of Fairtrade International’s
governing body, influencing major decisions we make.
Companies appreciate that we’re promoting their products both to shoppers and
retailers. Shoppers choose Fairtrade because they want sustainable choices; and
we highlight brand partners in our marketing programs to help generate awareness
among shoppers who want to vote with their
We run campaigns seasonally to increase the purchase of Fairtrade-certified
We also offer brands the opportunity to invest in causes and Fairtrade programs
they are most passionate about, beyond the Fairtrade minimum price and the
Fairtrade premium (an additional payment supporting democratically chosen
community projects like clinics, schools and business improvements). A
compelling example is our Women’s School of Leadership program that builds
the skills of women farmers in Africa and Asia. Graduates go on to
disseminate sustainable best practices, benefiting their communities and
strengthening companies’ supply chains. We also work with companies to support
farmers in developing new ways to adapt to the effects of climate change; which
is increasingly important for brands, farmers and shoppers.
PW: Your business can be Fairtrade certified if you source coffee,
sugar, bananas, avocados, vanilla, spices,
and similar goods from developing countries. Although the certification process
involves effort initially, it only takes a few weeks for companies to be
certified to sell Fairtrade products. Brand partners can tap into our existing
and established network of Fairtrade value chains. Many companies already have
relationships with traders that offer Fairtrade-certified goods, making the
switch even easier.
When a brand has a very specific product profile outside our existing Fairtrade
supply system, we connect them to our global network of producers to source
samples and certify new producer groups to solve that problem. In one instance,
a company was willing to wait almost a year to find exactly the right cocoa
quality they were looking for, and then quickly integrated the new supplier and
started marketing their products as Fairtrade certified. We applaud that level
of commitment and integrity, which pay dividends over time because shoppers
really want these ethical, sustainable products.
PW: Fairtrade International is planning to announce our new five-year
strategy shortly. It’s visionary and ambitious, while keeping our focus on what
matters most: the people who produce Fairtrade goods. Our new strategy also
reflects input from our business partners, catalyzing us to streamline our
processes and introduce innovative supply chain solutions. There has never been
a better time for companies to engage with the Fairtrade movement.
To expand our impact and enhance our value to companies, we have set benchmarks
to deliver a living income to
and workers. Companies that commit to Fairtrade certification will continue to
see clear, measurable benefits.
Climate change is an increasing threat to producers’ livelihoods. Insects and
diseases that destroy coffee, cocoa and banana trees are proliferating as
temperatures rise. Decreased rainfall reduces crop yields; while too much rain,
like Cyclone Idai last year, wipes
out an entire year’s harvest — and income. The family farmers who grow most of
the coffee and cocoa we consume actually contribute the least to climate change,
but suffer its effects most
In the years ahead, the problem will unfortunately only intensify, which means
Fairtrade International and our partners will need to do even more — including
reforestation and other sustainable practices.
Finally, Fairtrade will continue to scale up our services to young people in
farming communities, while tackling the worst forms of child labor. Young people
around the world are not following in their families’ footsteps and becoming
farmers — they simply don’t see a future in it. The average age of a cocoa
farmer in West Africa is 50 years old — and the average life expectancy is 60.
We’d also like to replicate the success of our women’s leadership programs by
building the next generation of young agricultural entrepreneurs.
Thanks for giving us this opportunity to tell the Fairtrade story. We want to be
brands’ preferred partner to make supply chains more sustainable and ethical so
family farmers and workers can earn decent livelihoods. We hope to partner with
more companies to make a meaningful difference — to their suppliers, their
customers and their bottom line. Come join
Published Oct 1, 2020 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.