If you’ve gone shopping for chocolate or coffee, you’ve likely heard of Fair Trade. It’s another one of those certifications in the realm of sustainability, but many people don’t know what it actually means beyond being a buzzword.
Made to help protect the environment, laborers, and communities, Fair Trade is part of the larger movement to create a more equitable and compassionate world — and has especially great impacts in the furniture and design world. Curious to learn more? We chatted with an expert all about what Fair Trade really means, why it's important, and how you can make a difference as a shopper.
Meet the Expert
Julio Zegarra-Ballon is the founder of Zee Bee Market, a Fair Trade retail company.
The History of Fair Trade
The Fair Trade (also known as FT) movement traces its roots to 1946 when Edna Ruth Byler, a volunteer, visited a sewing class in Puerto Rico. She witnessed the talent women had for creating beautiful lace as well as the poverty in which they lived despite their hard work. “She began carrying these pieces back to the United States to sell and returning the money back to these groups directly,” Julio Zegarra-Ballon, founder of Zee Bee Market, explains. “[This] eventually led to the opening of FT retail stores operated by Ten Thousand Villages.”
In 1949, another organization called SERRV (Sales Exchange for Refugee Rehabilitation and Vocation) started helping displaced European refugees trade their handicrafts for income. “These two entities and many others now work with artisans and small-scale farmers in over 50 countries,” Zegarra-Ballon says.
The FT movement gained further traction when it reached farmers who use their land in the production of coffee, cacao, tea, and other food staples, according to Zegarra-Ballon.
What Does Fair Trade Look Like Today?
Today, Fair Trade involves a certification and verification process for involved sellers. Many marketplaces are members of the Fair Trade Federation, for example. “We renew our membership to this important trade association every year by explaining how we live the Nine Principles of the FT,” Zegarra-Ballon says. These principles include creating opportunities for marginalized producers, developing transparency, paying fair prices, and respecting cultural identities, among others. “The FT certification process involves people on the ground witnessing and assessing trade practices that ensure the supply chain complies with FT,” he elaborates.
Other organizations like Fair Trade USA also issue certifications and labels for products based on an annual audit. Several even encourage community projects, like providing bicycles to employees or building nursery schools next to factories, to increase equity at production sites.
The benefits even extend beyond employees. “Customers who seek FT choices should know their purchasing power is truly a force for positive change,” Zegarra-Ballon says. “Because FT products come from a unique supply chain that focuses on people and the planet, their impact on the environment leaves a low carbon footprint.”
Items are often handcrafted, he adds, and therefore do not require excessive use of fossil fuels compared to big machinery. “Artisans are stewards of the environment by using, whenever possible, upcycled, recycled, and repurposed materials,” Zegarra-Ballon says.
Fair Trade is becoming increasingly relevant today as it satisfies an unmet need. “More and more caring, thoughtful, socially and environmentally conscious consumers are opening their wallets and purchasing products that put people and the planet first,” Zegarra-Ballon explains. “There is a beautiful story behind each [FT] item we sell and that’s worth sharing.
How to Shop Fair Trade
There are certain products that are particularly helpful to shop FT given their history of exploitative practices. “Staples like coffee, chocolate, and tea should have an FT certification logo to ensure farmers received fair compensation for their hard work and to ensure sustainable farming practices are in place,” Zegarra-Ballon explains. In the design and home decor world, cotton is another fabric that benefits from FT certification.
Zegarra-Ballon notes there may be skepticism around the validity of FT items since big corporations are often placed in the spotlight for inhumane working conditions. However, he says, Fair Trade is the opposite of this. “What I see often is lack of knowledge by most consumers on how products get to our stores and ultimately their homes,” he adds. “Once we take the time to explain how FT works, about its unique supply chain model, and how it differs from large retailers, their shopping behavior changes.”
Fair Trade Shops to Support
Ready to start buying Fair Trade? Here are some FT shops that you can enjoy:
- Zee Bee Market is a shop selling socially and environmentally conscious gifts from around the world.
- Ten Thousand Villages is a Fair Trade pioneer selling handcrafted home decor and gifts.
- SERRV offers handmade foods and home goods from small-scale artisans around the world.
- Fair Trade Winds is a family-run business selling FT clothing, accessories, and more.
- The Little Market sells FT kids’ toys, candles, and decor and also offers custom orders.
- Made Trade sells ethical and sustainable bed and bath items, along with clothing and shoes.
- Accompany offers Fair Trade home and fashion items, and goes the extra mile with their own set of standards to ensure communities are truly benefitting from the business.