With the growing presence of Fair Trade products in our marketplace, we’re sure you’ve seen the above symbols and have probably had more than one question on what it all means. If you don’t work in the Fair Trade industry, it does get a bit confusing. What does Fair Trade certified even mean? How does it relate to sweatshops? What logo should I be looking for so I can make sure I’m making the correct Fair Trade purchases? As a leader and pioneer in the Fair Trade fashion movement, we hope this post will help clarify the process of Fair Trade certification.

The concept of Fair Trade has existed since the early 1950’s when non-profit organizations first began importing products from small-scale third world producers. Over the years, as the movement grew and more and more entities were participating in this alternative form of trading, there became a need to create a structure and definition for Fair Trade to not only certify the participating producers but also to help promote the concept of Fair Trade and expand distribution to mainstream retailers.

So, what is Fair Trade? The most widely recognized definition of Fair Trade was created by an informal association of Fair Trade federations (we introduce you to a few of these groups further along in the post). Their definition reads:

Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South. Fair Trade organisations (backed by consumers) are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade. Fair Trade’s strategic intent is:

  • *deliberately to work with marginalized producers and workers in order to help them move from a position of vulnerability to security and economic self-sufficiency
  • *to empower producers and workers as stakeholders in their own organizations
  • *to actively play a wider role in the global arena to achieve greater equity in international trade.”

Many Fair Trade retailers, such as ourselves, take this definition even further by taking steps to ensure that our Fair Trade workers are being paid a living wage, are not held or forced to work overtime, are subject to a safe and healthy working environment, do not employ child labor, and are actively involved in wider community initiatives such as building a village health clinic or our 2007 water access program.

In order to ensure that companies, organizations, and products are in fact following the standards of Fair Trade and that the suppliers and the environment are being treated fairly, these Fair Trade federations have created a number of certification processes and easily-recognizable logos for consumers to use as a purchasing guide. The federations, both national and international, not only encourage companies to employ Fair Trade practices, but they monitor and certify these practices as meeting the international standards. This process helps keep the market pure; protects workers down the supply chain; and makes it easier for consumers to be sure they are receiving legitimate Fair Trade products and are supporting authentic organizations.

With so many associations, though, it can get confusing who certifies what, and how to know if something is actually certified Fair Trade. Below is a brief explanation of some of the symbols and organizations you may come across while inspecting a product label:

Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (or FLO) is an international federation of organizations, traders, and experts that not only historically set the standard of Fair Trade practices, but also continue to certify and offer support to the widest array of Fair Trade producers. The certification process is done by FLO-CERT GmbH, an independent auditing company based out of Germany that conducts product certifications in seventy countries worldwide.

FLO’s certifications are distinct from other federations because it guarantees that a premium be paid to the producer groups that extends well beyond the conventional ‘fair price’. They also encourage buyers to invest in social and environmental improvements for the producer groups that not only embellishes the economic transaction of doing business, but helps create lasting long-term relationships. FLO also certifies the most products and steadily increases their product list every year in order to ensure the future of Fair Trade. FLO’s certified products include honey, cotton, wine, sports balls, fruit, and flowers, as well as more widely-recognized Fair Trade products such as coffee, tea and cocoa. We believe that FLO’s certifications are top notch and amongst the best out of all the federations available to Fair Trade retailers. Our fairly traded Ethletic sneakers are produced by a facility that is monitored by FLO. To identify FLO products, make sure to look for their logo and check out their chock-full-of-good-info website www.fairtrade.net.

TransFair is one of the 20 member organizations of FLO and is the primary operating Fair Trade entity here in the US. They also have chapters in Canada and a few other countries that all call FLO their parent organization. You most likely have seen TransFair’s symbol associated with Fair Trade as it is very commonly used to certify products gracing American supermarket shelves:

While TransFair’s efforts are extremely notable, they are much more limited in resources than FLO, and are thus only able to certify a handful of agricultural products such as coffee, tea, rice, sugar and vanilla.

Another organization which you may have heard tossed around is the Fair Trade Federation (or FTF). FTF is a member-based association of US and Canadian importers, wholesalers, and retailers that work with or carry Fair Trade items. Not only does it provide a network for these companies to link with Fair Trade producers, but it also promotes Fair Trade standards and practices throughout North America. Also, FTF is a great place for consumers to find general information about Fair Trade and local companies and businesses that sell and work with fair trade products. It’s important to note, though, that while FTF has a very rigid member screening policy, it is not a certifying entity. So when you see this logo, you know that the organization is only a member of FTF and is not necessarily promoting certified products:

Finally, you may have heard the term IFAT or International Fair Trade Association while learning about Fair Trade. With regional offices for Africa, Asia and Latin America, IFAT is like an international version of FTF: a member-based organization whose work is focused on developing the market for Fair Trade products and advocacy. Even though it is technically not a certification system, IFAT guarantees that the organizations it approves meet worldwide Fair Trade standards such as working conditions, wages, and the environment. IFAT’s identifying symbol is probably less seen in this country than any of the above organizations, but is still good to familiarize yourself with:

This explanation and list of Fair Trade federations is certainly not exhaustive and we encourage you to research Fair Trade much more extensively on your own. Even if you don’t, we hope you found this introduction useful and that you will continue to look for and support FAIR TRADE!