Fact or Fiction? The Truth About Fair Trade

Fair trade artisans in India spinning cruelty-free silk.

As I’ve traveled on my journey to spread the fair trade word, I’ve run into a number of pre-conceived notions about fair trade that keep cropping up.  Lots of others have tackled these misconceptions, but I thought I’d add my two cents worth, too.  Here are some of the more prevalent fictions about fair trade and facts to clear them up:

1. Fair trade is only for farmers.

  • While coffee was the first agricultural product certified as fair trade in 1988, fair trade handicrafts have been sold since 1946.
  • There’s a huge range of non-food fair trade products on the market, from home and personal accessories to soccer balls, clothing, shoes, furniture and toys.

2. Fair trade products are expensive.

  • Yes, producers and artisans are paid more compared with their local economy to assure they have a sustainable & reliable income.
  • But there are far fewer middlemen than with mass-produced products, where middlemen take a generous portion of the profits and often exploit the workers.
  • Fair trade retailers and suppliers work to keep margins reasonable so the price to consumers is reasonable.

Silk and cotton scarf handmade by fair trade artisans.

3. Fair trade products are poor quality and unfashionable.

  • On the contrary, because they’re handcrafted with care, the quality of fair trade products is often superior to mass-produced items.
  • Contemporary designs are married with indigenous craftsmanship to create goods that will stand up against those in any high-end boutique.

4. Fair trade is charity.

  • Fair trade handicrafts are made by some of the poorest women in the world. Many are victims of abuse or trafficking.   Fair trade gives them sustainable, reliable income, skills training and education.
  • This positive and long-term change gives them the power and independence they need so they cannot be taken advantage of again. It’s a hand up, not a handout.

5. Fair trade is a brand or marketing tactic.

  • Fair trade is an international movement that began over 60 years ago. It seeks to balance the scale for the world’s most desperately impoverished people.
  • A number of organizations such as the World Fair Trade Organization, Fairtrade Labeling Organization, and the Fair Trade Federation certify various links in the fair trade supply chain to assure they adhere to established fair trade principles.

6. Free trade is fair trade.

  • Free trade is global trade whereby companies search for the cheapest labor and most lenient regulations regarding labor and the environment.
  • Fair trade attempts to address the drawbacks of free trade by insisting on standards in the global trading system, such as fair pay, safeguarding children’s rights, protecting the environment, and transparency throughout all aspects of the trading network, among others.
  • For a more complete comparison, see “Free Trade Is Not Fair Trade”.

9 comments on “Fact or Fiction? The Truth About Fair Trade

  1. Stephanie – great article, thank you.
    The exciting thing for me is that the scope of fair trade is constantly expanding, both in terms of the products that are included and the regions and producer groups it reaches.
    I work with a jewellery manufacturer called Vipa Designs, and we’re part of the fairtrade and fairmined gold project, bringing gold in from Peru and Columbia that has been mined by small-scale artisanal miners.
    You can read more about the project here: http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/gold/


    • Thank you, David. I’ve often wondered about gold, since I rarely see it for sale by any fair trade companies. So I’m glad to see this project, a wonderful idea.

      I very much admire how the UK has taken to fair trade. I’m trying my best here in the States to spread the word about it, along with many others involved in fair trade. We do see the concept taking hold more beyond the agricultural products, so there is hope!

      I’m now following the project on Facebook and Twitter, so will be excited to learn more about it.


  2. I DO NOT AGREE… AT ALL…. I have been in the buisiness for 40+ .. And seen the rise of the FAIR TRADE ACT… ITS NOT ALL REAL.. believe me…There is a LOT of crooked inspectors in India, and China… I have traveled ALL over the world, tested 100s of textiles from india and china. Let it be organic cotton, hemp what have you… 60% of textiles I bought from INDIA were NOT.. Organic at all. But yet it was labeled fair trade organic… Same with hemp from China.. It was 100% flax,,, But most of all, When I visited a factory unanounced to see if they were for real.. I WAS SHOCKED TO SEE 100+ children making clothes in a factory marked FAIR TRADE . and it was also, accredited FAIR TRADE… We interviewed 5 children , who told us they worked 19 hours a day , anfd there parent were NOT allowed to work PERIOD…. So you make the decision! Fair trade may be a great selling game, buts Id say 70% is false.


    • Have these businesses and products you’ve dealt with been certified by any of the recognized fair trade or organic certifying organizations? I don’t doubt there are unscrupulous businesses that do use “fair trade” and “organic” as marketing labels when they’re not certified as either. But I’d question the 70% figure if the businesses have been certified.

      I’d be interested in knowing more about your business and how you’ve found the manufacturers you mentioned. Are you still working in the fair trade sector?

      I think this is an issue definitely worth discussing at more length. Thanks for your comment.


    • Obeart,
      Wow!!! I believe that!! That’s more than a shame.
      Thank you for sharing your experience and allowing it to be known.


  3. I have also seen the good, bad and ugly of Fair Trade. It really is up to the consciousness of the person or organization responsible. The policing of these organizations is not up to the standard needed to remove those who don’t qualify. On the other side I’ve seem many wonderful groups and people quietly dong good things in this area. You have to remove those who bring greed into the picture, and it may take some time, but we should negate the good things that are happening because of the movement. I’ve worked in Laos with a Lao NGO to build their handcraft division into a sustainable local and export business system. We have impacted a lot of people with the effort. we have run into unscrupulous people and buyers that say they are Fair Trade venues, but we’ve survived them and the greater good has been served. The organization is run by the Lao, for the Lao. Learning how to deal with people of lower morals is a good education for them on how to work within the larger world. No matter how may rules and regulations we put on things, human nature will find a way to subvert them, so wee need to police ourselves, and arm those less experienced with the knowledge of how how to build on the good and sort out the bad. We have a locla organization in vientiane and an export channel in the West that we are building for them: http:www.orijyn.com Best wishes to those doing the good out there. Too bad it doesn’t get more media attention.


    • Good points, Mark. I’ve also run into suppliers who claim they are fair trade but when I press them for documentation or anything to substantiate their claim, nothing results. We need to work to continue defining fair trade as a movement and not a label unscrupulous vendors can slap on their not-so-fairly traded products. I believe I saw your beautiful silver jewelry at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco about a year ago.


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