Fair Trade Saga – Episode 1: Fair what…? What exactly is fair trade?

What does experience tell me about how fair trade is perceived by the general population? Well, I can say that fair trade is certainly one of the most unclear -and sometimes even confusing – concepts which have ever existed in the history of commercial consumption and international trade. A bad image (or rather really bad marketing) for the social and solidarity economy!

Even though fair trade is often mentioned in the media, during discussions between friends, or by businesses around us, I often notice during the multitude of events in which I participate, that the ordinary citizen (let’s avoid the term « average », which I don’t particularly like) has a very unclear idea of the meaning of the term « fair trade. » We’re hearing here and there that fair trade is « good » or « better », but why exactly? And what purpose does that serve? And moreover, how can we really recognize fair trade products and integrate them into our daily life? I only have one simple answer for that, three major phrases to understand this world and acquire your own convictions: inform yourself, inform yourself, inform yourself! I will therefore cover all of those questions in several articles (episodes) which will be parts of our « Fair Trade saga ». In episode 1 we will try to understand what it is about. If you don’t have the time to read through the entire article, you can refer to everything in bold letters as well as to the images, so that you can understand the core of the topic.

Logically, I made use of the web to explain fair trade. Wikipedia.fr thus defines it as

“An exchange system in which the objective is to reach a higher equity in world trade. The approach of fair trade consists of a collective action of organizing production and distribution for the international market in new ways, based on neat social, economic and environmental norms, which don’t require any interference by the states or modification of national legislations.”

Between you and me, this all doesn’t seem very clear, does it?

To make matters a bit more concrete, let’s take a look at the best known example: coffee.

Watch out! Here’s a shot of General Culture to impress your friends: Coffee is the most sold agricultural good in the world, and – with all categories taken together – it is the second most selling product in the world right after gasoline. It is also unprecedentedly the most-sold, fairly traded product and, consequently, the most famous one (here’s a good point for the social and solidarity economy!). There’s a last very important remark to be made: coffee is exclusively produced in countries of the South and never in the North. Try, therefore, to grow your coffee in Abitibi-Témiscamingue – that will not work! However, despite its production in the South, it is primarily consumed in the North.

Top Coffee-producing countries

There are 2 types of coffee: Arabica and Robusta
R : Producer of Robusta Coffee
A : Producer of Arabica Coffee
M : Producer of Arabica & Robusta Coffee

Top Coffee importing countries

Let’s start!

 1. « An exchange system? » Coffee trade between producing countries (North) and importing countries (South). Let’s take the example of exchanges between Cote d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) as a coffee-producing country, and Canada, as an coffee importing country.

 2. « Objective : a higher fairness? » On the one hand, producers in the South – Cote d’Ivoire – want to make a living from their work in dignity and wish to carry it out under acceptable conditions. For example: they don’t want to be compelled to use pesticides which are dangerous to their health – usually the least expensive ones – while those same pesticides are actually forbidden in Canada precisely because of the harmful effects of the toxic chemicals they contain. Or again, they don’t want to be compelled to hire children – cheaper than adults – because the London Stock Exchange has imposed a sales price which doesn’t even cover their production costs. On the other hand, the consumers in the North, in Canada, agree with the principle of fairness and often prefer to drink a coffee with a less bitter « taste! » How can we thus unite those two sides? 

 3. « A collective action of organizing production and distribution for the international market in new ways? » Several elements of the supply chain (among others: producers and their cooperatives in the South, Fair Trade-certified non-governmental organizations, consumers from the North) unite for three major reasons: 1) To not isolate coffee producers: first of all thanks to the cooperative which has a negotiation power, a single farmer doesn’t have (don’t forget that the cooperative, in the form of an enterprise of the social or solidarity economy, represents a collectivity). 2) To work on a common equitable and long-term objective: thanks to the relations with partners from the North, the whole supply chain works according to the defended principles and practices. Thus, a long-term relationship with the producers in the South is formed. 3) To decrease the number of middleman speculators: this implies fewer people making profit on the base price and additionally, fewer unnecessary shifts of the merchandise! The carbon footprint says thank you! Here is an entry I did for Fair Trade Montréal Équitable. Look at the difference between the two production-distribution ways which the coffee takes before arriving in your cup in the morning!

 4. « Based on neat social, economic and environmental norms? » Social norms = Working to live with human dignity and forbidding child labour. Economic norms = Working for a fair salary and reinvesting it into the community thanks to the bonus from fair trade. Only fair trade offers a bonus, which serves to improve the overall living conditions of the producers, for things such as construction of hospitals or schools. Environmental norms = Working without using chemical products or dangerous pesticides, which are forbidden elsewhere and favouring sustainable agricultural practices and developing (but not yet systematically!) organic production.

 5. « Norms, which don’t require any interference by the states or modification of national legislations? » In Canada, fair trade is certified autonomously by three non-governmental organisms without profit-making objective: FairTrade Canada (affiliated with FairTrade International), FTF -Fair Trade Federation and WFTO -World Fair Trade Organization. What’s the difference between those organizations? FairTrade Canada certifies that a product is fair-trade, while FTF and WFTO certify that the organizations which sell the products are fair-trade. I’ll write an article about the difference between those two types of certification later on. Meanwhile, pinpoint the logos which guarantee you fair trade! 

Now that you know what fair trade is and how you can recognize it, I am going to cover several tricks on how to integrate it into your daily life, in the next article. Meanwhile, take the information, think about it, ask yourself questions.

Zebran regards,

Laurence Bakayoko


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