How Consumers Can Make a Difference

January 19, 2018

What does fair trade mean, really?  To many, the Fairtrade certification mark is viewed as a strategy for retailers to justify higher pricing on everyday products; to others, it indicates ethical trade practices and fair production prices.  While there is still a lot more to learn, fair trade goes far beyond fair prices and working conditions.  SFU fair trade ambassador Nikki Mertins visited fair trade producers in Ecuador this past November and shares what fair trade truly means to these producers and their communities. 


The Realities of Fair Trade


Having visited 11 different producers I learned that they not only all hold Fairtrade certified, they also all hold other certifications, including Organic and Small Producers Symbol (SPP).  Most of their certifications have high environmental and social standards to ensure that workers’ rights are met and that sustainable environmental practices are adhered to.  But why go to the trouble of multiple certifications when you only need one – especially as it can be expensive to both certify and complete annual audits.  Time and again the cooperatives told us that everything they do is for the people.  For example, many producers choose pesticides from an approved list that have minimal toxicity to not only protect the environment but also the workers who apply the pesticides.  Some cooperatives go as far as giving their workers extra vacation time than the legal standard in Ecuador.  Of course, these certifications help small-scale producers to compete in the market as part of a larger organization, but one thing is clear: these cooperatives are dedicated communities.



A simple google search might tell you that fair trade premiums are used to improve and build the producers’ communities.  So what does that really look like?  Some cooperatives use the premiums on things like building new infrastructure or paying for the education of their workers’ children.  At Agrocoex, an Ecuadorian flower cooperative, premiums are used to provide an onsite dental service, laundry facility, computers and the internet, as well as build housing units that workers can purchase with the aid of the cooperative.  One worker explained to us that she used to spend her weekends doing laundry at home, but now she can wash her clothes while at work and spend her weekends with her family. 


Challenges of Fair Trade

Power Dynamics

Although the varying fair trade certifications are based on the same fundamental values and policies, each differs when it comes to producer involvement and degree of environmental protection.  As a producer, you would want to choose certifications that best align with your cooperative’s vision.  But, producers do not always have a choice in the certifications they use, because their importing consumers may demand a certain type of product or certification.  So, surprisingly, in a fair trade system that aims to empower marginalized producers and remove the power dynamics between the wealthy and the exploited nations, power dynamics still exist.  For instance, while Fairtrade International is 50% producer owned , meaning producers are at the table for discussions on standard setting and organizational strategy, within Fair Trae USA’s certification system, producers have no organizational control. We asked one producer who is certified with Fair Trade USA why they chose this certification over Fairtrade International.  They explained to us that they had no choice because their biggest buyer is from the USA and without that certification the buyer wouldn’t do business with them. (For this reason, among many others, Fair Trade USA is not accepted within the Fair Trade Campus Program of which SFU is a certified campus). 


Fair Trade Products Sold at Conventional Prices

Despite producing all of their products on fair trade terms, not one of the cooperatives we visited sold all of their products at fair trade prices.  At one extreme, fair trade sales can be as low as 3-4% of total sales; at the other end of the spectrum, fair trade sales can count for 65% of sales.  To the producers whose fair trade sales account for less than half of total sales you might ask why they bother to pay for the certification.  Why not just produce and sell products at conventional standards like everybody else?  You can probably guess the answer by now:  they certify for the workers. For some producers, the biggest challenge to selling their fair trade products at conventional market prices is not receiving premiums.  Without premiums, they cannot further develop their facilities or their communities.

Prior to my visit, I hardly considered who produced my food or how it got here.  It was eye-opening to see first-hand that people’s livelihoods depend on the type of bananas I eat every day.  The most important lesson I learned on this trip is to appreciate the hard work these producers put into fair trade certification, and that consumers hold the purchasing power to make a difference.  We are responsible for engaging in ethical consumption. Paying an extra dollar or two may not be so significant to our lives, but it can make life changing differences for people producing our products. 


Nikki Mertens is a fourth-year business and environment student at SFU.  Passionate about social and environmental change, she is an SFU Fair Trade Ambassador, Student Sustainability Peer and involved with SFU Blood for Life, and aspires to attain a career helping to protect the environment and empower marginalized communities.  When she’s not studying, Nikki enjoys cooking, reading, learning Spanish and working out.