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Are Fair Trade Goods Worth the Cost?

Cover Photo by Etty Fidele via Unsplash

Chocolate bars are delicious — that’s a statement that’s pretty hard to argue. However, do you know what’s really behind this treat? Perhaps you don’t, or perhaps you have blissfully chosen to ignore its story (which is very much the opposite of sweet). I’m not talking about health. I’m not trying to warn you about sugar or carbohydrates or high fructose corn syrup. Rather, let’s discuss the systems that produce your average bar of chocolate (or your commonplace cup of coffee, your basic banana, your workaday wine, and so on). You might discover that many of your favorite products aren’t so wonderful after all. However, are fair trade goods the best solution?


How is my chocolate bar made?

Cacao can come from several different corners of the world, from Ghana to Ecuador to Indonesia. Globally, though, Côte d’Ivoire is the leading cacao production hotspot. While being surrounded by the fuel for chocolate might sound glamorous, the farms where major brands source their cacao are often wrought with tragedy. 

Back in 2001, Hershey, Nestlé, and Mars vowed to remove “the worst forms of child labor” from their production process by 2005. However, groundbreaking research from the Washington Post in 2019 demonstrated that these corporations had not kept their vow. In response, Democratic Senators from Ohio and Oregon wrote to the Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security last summer to compel him to block imports of cocoa (the roasted version of cacao) tainted with “forced child labor.” This letter points to an estimate from the Department of Labor that puts the number of children reaping West African cocoa at over two million. This means that two million children are cut off from the opportunity to receive an education, thereby contributing to cyclical poverty. Upward mobility, then, becomes strikingly difficult. 

When examining the effects on the planet, we find a similarly unsettling story. As cacao trees age, they produce less and less usable product. Farmers are forced to clear more land for more cacao trees in order to keep up with demands. Therefore, the chocolate industry is fueled by deforestation. (While removing trees just to plant more might not seem too terrible, it is important to remember that the reach of deforestation goes beyond the number of trees. Industry growth means that rainforests could be the next targets in some areas, threatening biodiversity.)

These undesirable effects are not limited to chocolate alone. Just one cup of coffee takes roughly 140 liters (or almost 37 gallons) of water to produce. The byproducts of sugar production, namely waste and pesticides, have polluted the ocean near the Great Barrier Reef. Even supplying honey on a large scale might also be unsustainable, specifically as a result of honeybee breeding processes and transportation that put them at risk.


How can I be a better consumer?

“Ethical consumerism” is a major buzzword these days. The term refers to the act of using marketplace decisions as a mechanism for positive change. The philosophy behind this practice?  Companies working for a better world will continue to grow and succeed, while the ones who thrive off of destructive traditions will eventually be forced out of the market.

Fairtrade International is a popular organization among ethical consumerism junkies. The group supports those producing raw materials for our favorite goods by offering “prices that aim to cover the average cost of producing their crop sustainably,” thereby making them more equipped to handle volatility in the market. The Fairtrade Premium is another essential part of the system, offering a supplemental payment that farmers can use as they see fit. Growers might use this extra resource to improve the quality of education in their communities, make clean water more accessible, and so on. 


What is Fairtrade? from Fairtrade International on Vimeo.


Goods must comply with economic, social, and environmental guidelines in order to bear Fairtrade International’s FAIRTRADE Mark. FLOCERT is in charge of investigating producers before goods made with their crops can be certified. For example, goods must not be produced with child labor or coerced labor. Producers must be allowed a voice in their terms of work, whether through a cooperative system or through bargaining rights with their employers. Discrimination on any basis is strictly prohibited. Providing workers of all genders with what they need to thrive is a prominent goal. Environmental ethics are also at the heart of the system. Producers must dispose of byproducts safely, avoid using pesticides on a large scale, and more. Additionally, Fairtrade International offers a carbon credits program, allowing companies to account for the social costs of their emissions. (To read more about carbon as a commodity, check out this article.)

You’re probably familiar with fair trade chocolate or coffee, but there are numerous products that can receive the certification. Flowers, quinoa, sports balls, cotton, rice, fruit juices, and even gold can all receive the FAIRTRADE Mark. 

While the phrase “fair trade” has entered our vernacular, there are several organizations that fall within this category. Fairtrade International is made up of nation-specific groups like Fairtrade Ireland, Fairtrade America, and the United Kingdom’s Fairtrade Foundation. However, there are several organizations external to Fairtrade International that are committed to similar missions, such as Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade Federation


What’s the catch?

Fair trade critics are quick to point out flaws in the system. Ndongo Samba Sylla, author of The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich is one such detractor. He argues that the countries who acquire the highest number of certifications are not the countries with the greatest need. Additionally, the system tends to focus on Latin American producers, leaving Africa and Asia largely left out of this progress. 

Other arguments against fair trade have to do with product quality. When farmers know that fair trade companies will offer a higher price for their crops, they have a motive to sell their worst-quality crops to the fair trade companies and then sell the remaining, better part of the yield for a high price elsewhere.

Similarly, achieving a certification isn’t cheap. Some farmers might need to completely overhaul their production process in order to receive certification, and so the gains that come from taking part in the fair trade system may not always outweigh these costs.


Why aren’t fair trade goods more popular?

Creating justice in the supply chain means that these goods often cost much more than standard products. A 3-ounce bar of Endangered Species milk chocolate, for example, costs $3.29. The same from Divine Chocolate costs $3.99. Meanwhile, you could stroll into your local Walmart and buy two milk chocolate Hershey bars, 1.55 ounces each, for a grand total of $1.76. (Keep in mind, though – where else are you going to find flavors like Dark Chocolate Lemon Ginger with Black Pepper from Equal Exchange? It’s delicious, I promise.)

What now?

Despite these qualms, some fair trade products have made it big. Take barkTHINS, for example, who uses dark chocolate made with ingredients certified by Fair Trade USA. Clothing giant Patagonia also sells products with this certification, including shorts, hoodies, and t-shirts. Similarly, the cocoa, sugar, bananas, vanilla, and coffee in products made by Ben & Jerry’s is certified by Fairtrade International.  

Consumers must make a crucial choice here. For some, shelling out extra cash to feel better about what they buy simply may not be feasible. For others, handing over these extra dollars might just not be worth it. What’s your decision?

Cover Photo by Etty Fidele via Unsplash

  • Are fair trade goods worth the cost?

    • of course! you can’t put a price on human and environmental well-being
    • $4 for a chocolate bar? no way…
    • ethical consumerism is great, but fair trade isn’t the best way to do it


Written by Megan Pontin

Enthusiastic word-collector, avid pancake-consumer, and experienced hammock-lounger. Student at Cornell University.

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