Keep Fair Trade Fair: Don't Weaken Standards

Keep Fair Trade Fair: Don't Weaken Standards

It is not an exaggeration to say the fair trade movement is in crisis. The fundamental purpose of fair trade – to support small farmers in ways that are good for them, their communities, the environment, and consumers – is being challenged. There is a division within the fair trade movement itself with one part of the movement supporting weaker, broader standards (that would allow even plantation-growth coffee to be certified as fair trade, for example) and the other part of the movement seeking to maintain standards that will preserve the movement’s original purpose of helping small farmers.

From the beginning of the movement some 25 years ago, the center of fair trade has been small farmers who organize themselves into democratic co-operatives to govern and coordinate their efforts, develop improved methods of farming and processing, engage in community development, and build power. The fair trade movement was established as an alternative to the dominant form of agricultural trade that primarily involved large plantations, agribusiness, and multinational corporations. 

To ensure the integrity of fair trade products, in the 1990’s a number of alternative trade organizations, such as the UCC Fair Trade Project’s partner Equal Exchange, came together to create an independent certifying agency, TransFair (USA).  TransFair’s role was to investigate and certify that products were meeting the standards of fair trade. Consumers, seeing the TransFair seal, could be sure the products they purchased met the highest fair trade standards.

But over the years TransFair has slowly weakened fair trade standards. For example, despite the opposition of farmer organizations, alternative trade organizations, and fair trade advocates, TransFair began certifying as fair trade the bananas, tea, and cut flowers produced on plantations using less rigorous standards than those used for small farmer organizations. (Read how a tea-farmer cooperative in India compares with a “fair trade” tea plantation there.) TransFair courted large multi-national companies, such as Nestle, Chiquita, and Dole, and lowered fair trade standards so that some of the products produced by these agribusinesses could be certified and labeled fair trade, despite their poor labor practices and minimal commitments to the goals and mission of fair trade. Certifying “fair trade” plantations is at odds with the fundamental purpose of fair trade which is to provide small-farmer cooperatives with financial and technical resources and access to global markets that will enable them to compete successfully against plantations.  To many within the fair trade movement, it appears that TransFair is more interested in building its own brand by focusing on growth and expansion instead of quality and helping small farmers. It is very surprising and disappointing that the trend toward weaker standards and certification of plantations has been led by TransFair, the certifying agency that was charged with upholding fair trade standards.

Differences within the fair trade movement intensified in 2011.  

  • First, TransFair USA changed its name to “Fair Trade USA,” a move seen by many as an outrageous attempt to brand itself as and take over the entire fair trade movement in the U.S.
  • Second, Fair Trade USA announced further weakening of fair trade standards.
  • Third, Fair Trade USA began certifying fair trade coffee plantations (in addition to plantations growing other crops), the very plantations from which the fair trade system was originally designed to protect small farmers.  Given that small farmer co-operatives already produce more fair trade coffee than can be sold, sales of “fair trade” plantation coffee will just displace and reduce sales of authentic fair trade coffee grown by small farmer co-operatives.

While some organizations and individuals within the movement have been objecting to TransFair/Fair Trade USA’s ongoing erosion of fair trade standards for years, the most recent changes have sparked outrage and the desire to bring back the true meaning and purpose of fair trade.  


This is an important struggle. Concerned consumers must call for authentic fair trade. Support authentic fair trade and small farmer cooperatives by signing the petition

Justice and Witness Ministries will continue to work with Equal Exchange, our partner in the UCC Fair Trade Project, to bring to consumers authentic fair trade products, produced by small farmers organized in democratic co-operatives.  Order authentic fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate, and other products now. 

JWM is thankful for Equal Exchange’s leadership in resisting the erosion of standards within the fair trade movement. Equal Exchange was one of the first fair trade organizations in the U.S. and is a leader in the movement today with some of the largest sales volumes of any U.S. company. Last year Equal Exchange ceased using Fair Trade USA to certify its products.

To follow the developments in this controversy, read Equal Exchange’s blog, Small Farmers, Big Change and watch for new postings on the UCC Coffee Project webpage.  

Read more about the controversy from Equal Exchange.

Contact Info

Edith Rasell, Ph.D.
Minister for Economic Justice
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44115