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Fair trade has more positive impacts than we think

Different certification agencies, labels, and policies may make fair trade difficult to entirely understand. But the pure existence of the label has benefits we may not realize.

When purchasing food products, it’s easy to forget that on-package buzzwords actually mean something. While some terms, such as “natural” are not clearly defined (and are certainly marketing ploys), other words contain tangible benefits.

Take USDA Organic, for instance: It may not be completely understood by those not interested in nontoxic eating, but most comprehend that organic is a regulated growing method better for the earth, better for the field workers, and better for you. There is one USDA Organic certification, and the label is consistent on packages across America.

Fair trade is a different beast, however. Multiple certification agencies, differing label designs, and oft-confusing policies may make fair trade seem irrelevant. But is fair trade more than an excuse for manufacturers to garner higher price tags? Does the term truly benefit people living in agricultural communities?

The simple answer is yes. A recent monitoring report by Germany-based certification agency Fairtrade International (FLO) outlines positive fair trade impacts. For example, the total number of farmers and workers in the FLO system rose from 1.1 million to 1.24 million between 2010 and 2011—a 13 percent increase. Additionally, the total number of small-scale farmers affiliated with FLO experienced a 26 percent increase in sales revenues by the end of 2011. These statistics demonstrate how farmers—especially small producers—are in a better financial position due to fair trade’s assistance.

Poverty in agricultural communities was also leavened due to FLO’s influence. “One of the ways in which Fairtrade contributes most strongly to rural development is by giving farmers and workers a unique opportunity to plan, design, and implement development projects for their communities through participatory decision-making processes,” according to the report. Fairtrade premiums are typically invested back into communities, leading to concrete improvements in infrastructure and education.

Awareness through labels

The FLO report is important in understanding fair trade’s impact on the wellbeing of global workers. Gaining valid fair trade data is indisputably essential, as it prevents the term from becoming a watered down, meaningless word (as “natural” currently is).

But fair trade labels also contain another, more subtle benefit that can’t be measured so linearly.

As an ideology, fair trade’s mere existence has the power to encourage consumers to consider where commodities come from. Just as buying food from a farmers market fosters a closer connection with the people who produce it, fair trade certification seals spark the idea that products originate from somewhere and are made by someone—regardless of which reputable company (Fairtrade International, Equal Exchange, Rainforest Alliance, or Fair Trade USA) it comes from. The first step in becoming a savvy consumer stems with the realization that products don’t spontaneously sprout from grocery store shelves.

Fair trade intricacies may not be understood by all, but labels signify something we can quickly and easily wrap our heads around: This product was made responsibly.

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