What is Fair Trade, and How do I Make the Switch?


Fair trade is a movement that set out to value freedom and dignity higher than cost and convenience in the global marketplace. Fair trade seeks to help producers, craftsmen, and workers in developing countries achieve better trading conditions.1 The movement also promotes sustainable farming and ethical environmental practices.

We love Fairtrade Foundation's definition. Put simply, "With Fair trade, you have the power to change the world every day. With simple shopping choices you can get farmers [and artisans, producers, workers] a better deal. And that means they can make their own decisions, control their futures and lead the dignified life everyone deserves."

Does fair trade really make a difference?

Fair trade fights slavery. You may not be able to work for a counter-trafficking organization or donate large amounts to help their efforts, but you can still fight human trafficking. By shopping fair trade, you can know that you are not sending money to a company that profits off of slave labor.

Fair trade returns dignity to the marketplace. When your purchases provide dignified employment to people in developing countries, they are not forced into trafficking or dangerous conditions because of poverty. By affirming marketable skills and entrepreneurship, you are helping to create a sustainable solution to poverty.

Fair trade is good for the environment. The average American throws away 82 pounds of textiles every year, and the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world.2 Buying fair trade requires you to be intentional with your purchases, reducing the amount of waste you generate. Fair trade environmental standards are also higher, so you know that certified products you buy are made in an environmentally sustainable way.

What products are considered fair trade?

While it is possible to just look for products with the fair trade logo, having an understanding of what fair trade means can broaden your options and help you find fair trade products even if they aren’t advertised that way.

When people talk about buying fair trade, they are often referring to fair trade certification. There are many organizations that review companies and provide fair trade certifications, but the two most common are Fair Trade Certified and Fair Trade International.

To be certified by Fair Trade Certified, companies put money into a community development fund that goes directly to the community where the product was sourced. They also meet strict standards for fair wages, safe working conditions, and child labor.

However, even if a company’s products are not certified by an outside organization, they can still have high ethical standards for their supply chains. To find out if a company is fair trade, you can read their supplier code of conduct, look for a published list of suppliers, and look for whether or not their suppliers are subject to unannounced, third-party auditing.

Ok, but how do I start shopping fair trade?

Ready to make the switch to fair trade, but not sure where to start? The change doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Here are four steps that can help you transition to an ethical shopping lifestyle that supports freedom.

Focus on one issue first

Like any big project, you can’t change everything all at once. Start with one issue that is important to you. Maybe it’s labor trafficking, toxic pesticides on farms, or sweatshops in Southeast Asia. Start by looking out for and avoiding that issue when you shop. Once you’ve become familiar with ways to avoid supporting that problem, pick another aspect of the supply chain to start focusing on.

Buy less, buy better

Fair trade clothing costs more than clothes from mainstream brands, so you won’t be able to buy new clothes at the same rate that you might have in the past. For that reason, make mindful purchases. Do you really love whatever you are buying? Does it fit well with the rest of your closet? These questions will not only help you to keep your commitment to fair trade, but also help you to reduce the amount of fabric waste impacting the environment.

Shop Second Hand

Companies like ThredUp and Poshmark make it easier than ever to buy pre-loved clothing. Since you’re not buying new products, shopping second-hand is a great way to be completely sure that your purchase isn’t increasing the demand for trafficking or unfair labor practices. This affordable option also cuts down on environmental impact.

Good on You App

Don’t have time to research every purchase you make? You’re not alone. The creators of the Good on You App have already researched your favorite brands for you and created a rating system that makes it really easy to evaluate a company’s policies and practice without having to dig through their website yourself.

Looking for more inspiration to make the switch? Check out Sarah Lazarovic’s Buyerarchy of Needs, an illustration of the ethical shopping habit mindset.

With the tools to make better shopping choices, your small purchases can add up to create a freer world. We think Anna Lappe was right when she said, "Every time you spend money, you are casting a vote for the kind of world you want."


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