The Fairtrade symbol has a blue and yellow yin-yang, with two halves separated by a black humanoid swoosh. The symbol represents the international Fairtrade system and is an ethical label that signals to consumers that the products meet internationally agreed social, environmental and economic standards

Among other standards, Fairtrade means:

  • Prices which cover the average costs of producing their crops sustainably (this is a vital safety net when the market prices drop)
  • A premium paid on top of the selling price so that owners can invest in business or community projects of their choice
  • Decent working conditions and a ban on discrimination, forced labour and child labour

This concept of fair trading codes is crucial because trade on the globalised market tends to marginalise the farmers and workers as they are at the bottom of the economic food chain. For instance, although the Bangladeshi garment industry generates 80% of the country’s total export revenue, the majority of the garment workers earn much less than a living wage and face unsafe working conditions. Many even work seven days a week for 14 to 16 hours at a go!

The promise of Fairtrade is that it provides workers with improved terms of trade and that consumers are given a potent means of reducing poverty through their shopping choices. Yet, has Fairtrade delivered on its promises?

Watch this video which argues that Fairtrade does not actually help poor workers.

Other In-House Certification Programs

There have been a slew of new sustainability certification programs developed due to the perception that independent stamps of sustainability like Fairtrade may no longer have any value. While Fairtrade requires retailers to pay minimum commodity prices and annual premiums, research has shown that the financial benefits may not flow to the workers and that there are still instances of child labour in Fairtrade farms.

In response, some companies have developed their own in-house certification programs. For example, Sainsbury’s (a UK supermarket chain) decided to stop selling Fairtrade tea and replaced it with its own in-house brand called Fairly Traded as they discovered that Fairtrade was not very clear about how the premiums paid were being used. Other companies with in-house certifications include McDonald’s, Starbucks and Nestle. 

Yet, this is not without controversy as in-house certification programs may lead to a conflict of interest as compared to independent certification like Fairtrade. The guards are left to check themselves as the company is left to audit and accredit its own trading and manufacturing practices. Any funds raised will also need to be vetted by a committee within the company rather than by the beneficiaries themselves. Therefore, the company may ultimately retain its power and control over the workers and producers.


Greenwashing is the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service or company act. The problem with greenwashing is that it does not lead to any benefits for the farmers or workers, and consumers are often misled into thinking that the products are beneficial for them.

As more companies launch its own sustainability certification logos into the sea of labels existing on supermarket shelves, consumers may develop ‘label fatigue’. This means that consumers are inundated with too many different logos and are unable to know exactly what each logo guarantees.

When consumers are uncertain, they may just pick the product with any form of sustainability logo on them. The idea is: any claim of sustainability or fair trade is better than no claim at all, therefore I will choose this product over others. But the danger is where consumers are confused about labels, then corporations can easily greenwash their products, i.e. pretend to be ethical and sustainable in their practices without any substance or evidence.

If consumers wise up and become suspicious of labels, would there be any value to the Fairtrade mark anymore? Would a responsible shopper be able to make informed decisions on how to feed their families if it is uncertain what the labels communicate? These are deeper questions that require contemplation if we are to truly consume in an ethical way that benefits those who produce our products.

Questions for further personal evaluation: 

  1. How far do labels on sustainability and fair trading practices affect your shopping choices? Why or why not?
  2. Do you think “greenwashing” is problematic? If you think it is, how do you think we can stop the practice of greenwashing?

Useful vocabulary: 

  1. slew’: a large number
  2. inundated’: overwhelmed

Here are more related articles for further reading:

  1. Stanford Social Innovation Review: Strict Fairtrade certification requirements result in uneven economic advantages for coffee growers and lower quality coffee for consumers

Like many economic and political movements, the fair trade movement arose to address the perceived failure of the market and remedy important social issues. As the name implies, Fair Trade has sought not only to protect farmers but also to correct the legacy of the colonial mercantilist system and the kind of crony capitalism where large businesses obtain special privileges from local governments, preventing small businesses from competing and flourishing. To its credit, Fair Trade USA has played a significant role in getting American consumers to pay more attention to the economic plight of poor coffee growers. Although Fair Trade coffee still accounts for only a small fraction of overall coffee sales, the market for Fair Trade coffee has grown markedly over the last decade, and purchases of Fair Trade coffee have helped improve the lives of many small growers.

Despite these achievements, the system by which Fair Trade USA hopes to achieve its ends is seriously flawed, limiting both its market potential and the benefits it provides growers and workers. Among the concerns are that the premiums paid by consumers are not going directly to farmers, the quality of Fair Trade coffee is uneven, and the model is technologically outdated. This article will examine why, over the past 20 years, Fair Trade coffee has evolved from an economic and social justice movement to largely a marketing model for ethical consumerism—and why the model persists regardless of its limitations.


  1. The Guardian: Green-washing in the travel industry

Suddenly, it seems that every hotel, tour operator and even airline is bending over backwards to do its bit for the planet. Adverts and websites are full of claims about the good that choosing a particular holiday will do for the environment and local communities. And amid such a profusion of green claims, it’s becoming increasingly hard to tell who is genuinely concerned about the planet and who is just cashing in on our eco-guilt.

‘Already the word “eco” has lost all power and meaning,’ says Guyonne James, senior projects manager at Tourism Concern, a UK charity which campaigns against exploitation. ‘In Brazil, if a bed-and-breakfast has a back garden, they’ll call it an eco-lodge. There has been such a proliferation of claims and green labels that as a tourist you really have no idea what’s going on.’

Sometimes ‘greenwashing’ – dressing something up to appear more ethical, sustainable and hence saleable – is a cynical ploy; in other cases, it’s simply the result of a well-meaning organisation getting slightly carried away. The Austrian tourist authorities, for example, do a huge amount of work to promote responsible travel, but last month went over the top when they launched a publicity campaign telling travellers they could ‘reduce their carbon footprint’ by going on holiday to the country.