Does Fair Trade Always Equal Green?
A question that many people might not ask themselves – are fair -trade items always necessarily eco-friendly? The two concepts seem to be inextricably linked, especially in the consumer mind, but perhaps they are not always one.
The surge in popularity of ethical consumerism has certainly created a market for greener products, but it has also created a market for specific branding to demonstrate that these products have been scrutinized, and are assuredly your best conscious purchase. There are so many up-and-coming products, the average person can become confused rather quickly. It’s easy to make the assumption that any chocolate bar bearing a sticker that announces “fair trade” must also be good for the environment and good for those who pick the cacao, but, indeed that is not always the case.
Focusing on items that are “fair-trade certified” and for now ignoring the niche certifications such as bird-friendly, Rainforest Alliance-approved, UTZ certified and so on – we learn that traditionally, the fair-trade designation has been associated with labor standards rather than environmental concerns. This suggests that workers in distant places are earning better and more consistent wages, and laboring under better conditions than they would with products brought to market under conventional labels. But, any product that’s certified as fair trade, must also meet a set of environmental standards as determined by the Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International.
These restrictions are in some respects, very straightforward. For example, the certification process specifically bans a long list of dangerous pesticides, but, in other respects, the standards are more general. Things such as requiring buffer zones to be in place around conservation areas, minimize water use for irrigation, and ensure that organic waste is disposed of in a sustainable manner – but fair-trade advocates hold that the ecological rewards extend beyond simple rules. Through helping to empower and promote smaller producers, the label helps those who more likely to use traditional (and sustainable) growing methods that are better for the environment.
Remember though, that fair-trade doesn’t equal organic. Even while the international labeling group encourages producers to adopt organic practices whenever feasible, it does not require it. The group that maintains these standards within the United States is Transfair USA. According to them, more than 60% of fairly traded coffee also happens to be organic. There also exists a large area of overlap between fair-trade coffee and “bird friendly”, shade-grown varieties, but one doesn’t always equal the other. It seems however, that if one assumes the certifications are legitimate, fair-trade is likely to be more eco-friendly than most of the recognized brands in the supermarket.
Still, concerns are raised regarding this issue, one being that the promise of higher wages gained in fair-trade agreements could possibly create an incentive for farmers to over produce their goods. There is also the question of whether the farmers really enjoy many benefits directly provided from the higher price consumers pay for fair-trade items. Over production of goods keeps the rest of the world’s farmers poor, and results in more land being cleared for farming. Of course these concerns might be over emphasized, because fair-trade certifications more often than not place bans on the use of untouched forests, and there is very little evidence that small-scale production has led to over production.
Something else to consider, is the fact that fair-trade items are produced at far distances, and therefore must travel to reach local markets. If the products are shipped by sea, the impact might not be so bad, as it is believed that long-distance hauling, over ocean, has less detrimental effect than the same product being trucked from points within the U.S., but, certain perishable fruits and vegetables must always be transported by air which does indeed raise serious concerns.
The bottom line is this: If you’re concerned about issues of global poverty, and also passionate about climate change, you probably won’t be able to have it both ways at all times. Try keeping things in strict perspective. Rejecting bananas grown far away may reduce your carbon footprint in small measure, but you can make a much larger impact by refusing to support factory farming, and putting the pack of ground beef you picked up for supper, back on the shelf.