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Water break for tea pluckers at the Ambootia tea garden, a fair trade and organic certified tea plantation in Darjeeling, India.

Eric St-Pierre/Eric St-Pierre

Fair trade vodka, anyone?

Most consumers' knowledge of fair trade products extends to coffee and chocolate, but the ethical business practices promoted by the movement are being applied to manufacturing and farming on a greater scale than ever in the developing world. While Fair Trade coffee and chocolate are prevalent in most retail food store chains in Canada, the logo can also now be found on items as diverse as cut flowers, rice, textiles, cotton, sugar, sports equipment, wine and yes, spirits.

There is even a fair trade gold producer in western Columbia, Oro Verde (Green Gold), which is mindful of its workers' wellbeing and the local environment, and extracts gold by panning for it. The project gleans enough of the metal to sustain 194 local families.

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To be certified as fair trade, products generally need to have been produced under better working conditions, where producers are paid higher prices than is standard for the commodity. The concept often includes environmentally friendly practices, as well as developing the communities in which the producers live.

"Fair trade is grassroots to grassroots, producer to purchaser," said Michael Zelmer, spokesman for TransFair Canada, the national certifier of fair trade products in this country.

While more consumers are clued into green issues and buy organic and environmentally-sustainable products, awareness of the ethical origins of what we eat, drink and wear has been slower to build. This is partly because, until recently, it's been hard to find fair trade items.

But as standardized certification and labelling of fair trade items makes more products available at more retailers, this is changing.

Now, you can even get fair trade vodka, appropriately named Fair. It is made from the grain quinoa, grown by an association of 1,200 small, fair trade certified farmers in the Bolivian Highlands. While not currently available in Canada, TransFair USA is importing it in that country and there are hopes to break into the Canadian market in the future.

TransFair is the only Canadian member of the Fair Trade Labelling Organizations International, an umbrella group of national organizations that manage the certification and monitoring of fair trade standards.

According to TransFair, this is how consumers know they can trust something labelled fair trade:

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The producers - usually associations of small-scale farmers who grow the raw ingredients - have to meet a variety of criteria, including labour standards, sustainable farming and democratic participation.

- The producers report their sales to FLO-Cert, the Certification arm of the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, which also conducts on-site audits.

- Companies that buy products from fair trade certified producers must also follow fair trade standards, regularly report to the certification organization, and submit to on-site audits. These standards focus on the terms of trade - specifically they spell out the minimum prices that can be paid to producers, the expectation for longer-term contracts, and the requirement to provide up to 60 per cent of the value of a contract in advance, if requested. These companies are also audited to ensure the fair trade certified products they sell to their customers match the products they purchase from producers.

"The system monitors from the producer to the point of packaging, when the certification mark is applied to a consumer-ready product," Mr. Zelner said. "It's a complex and expensive system to oversee."

He said the process is funded through the fees charged to companies that put the fair trade certification mark on their packages. Producer groups and traders also pay a fee, though it is considerably smaller. All funding for TransFair Canada comes from these sources and not from government agencies.

"Millions are involved in the Fair Trade movement around the world, if you include advocates, producers, certifiers, people who are in businesses," Mr. Zelner said. "Certification is just a portion of the broader fair trade movement." He said there are more than 800 producers so far, ranging in size from tiny operations to the gigantic - one cocoa co-op, Kuapa Kokoo, founded in 1993 in Ghana, now has 45,000 members.

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More than 200 local groups promote and support fair trade in Canada, Mr. Zelmer said, including community groups, churches and schools. "They are as much part of the movement as the growers," he said.

"Compared with the U.K., we are not so big - it's the same in Europe in general. It's part of the fabric there because it has been going longer. As a result, people's awareness and per capita consumption is higher."

While both Canada and the U.S. are lagging, Mr. Zelmer said, the North American market is larger and growing. Sales in North America reached $1.1-billion in 2007.

Dr. Gavin Fridell, a professor of political economy at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., and the author of Fair trade coffee: The prospects and pitfalls of market-driven social justice, says fair trade advocates do not always recognize its limitations.

He said fair trade has three weaknesses.

The first, the market-driven strategies of the movement lets governments off the hook from the responsibility of establishing fair and equitable labour rights and practices.

For example, family-run banana farms on the Caribbean islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines had a special agreement with Europe for banana exports for 50 years, but the World Trade Organization ruled the agreement violated free trade. The agreement no longer protects Caribbean farmers competing against giant Latin American plantations, with the result that 85 per cent of banana farmers on St. Vincent quit.

"Under these conditions, fair trade is now moving in ... and they will proudly tell you that 90 per cent of the banana farmers are certified fair trade, but that is only of the remaining 15 per cent of farmers. And they don't get the same prices they used to get," he said. "Fair Trade cannot match what government agreements can do."

The second weakness, he said, comes from consumers holding the responsibility to buy fair trade. "They are often interested in social justice through what they buy, but are not well informed and overwhelmingly influenced by the trillion-dollar per annum advertising budget [in North America]of major corporations."

The third weakness, he said, is that powerful corporations could manipulate fair trade strategies as a marketing strategy, with token nods to fair trade to enhance their brands with consumers.

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