Is Fair Trade Just About Trading Fairly?

The Fairtrade label has been growing over the years, and has gained a lot of international recognition. We see the Fairtrade logo on coffee, chocolates, and teas, but what exactly does Fair Trade entail? Is there a difference between Fair Trade and Fairtrade? Who benefits from it? Why should we even support it? Sometimes the best place to get answers is surprisingly close to home. I sat down with Jessica “Jess” Hoch, the current VP Fair Trade of the McGill chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), in the FDA hallway on an early Friday morning, ready to learn what Fair Trade is all about.

What is the difference between Fair Trade and Fairtrade?

Fair Trade is a movement working towards making trade practice and policy fairer. There are several different organisations working to promote fair trade practice and policy, through product certification, advocacy, campaigning, and educational work.

Fairtrade is the labelling system controlled by Fairtrade Labelling Organisations (FLO) International and its national partners in different countries. The Fairtrade mark appears on products that meet Fairtrade standards and come from Fairtrade certified producer organisations.

How would you define “Fair Trade”?

Fair Trade incorporates social, environmental, and economic sustainability into its principles. Market prices fluctuate all the time because of supply and demand, weather, and other factors. This fluctuation can really hurt a farmer’s livelihood as it makes earning a stable income more difficult. The Fairtrade organization guarantees that the price of a product can cover the average costs of sustainable production. If the market price drops below the sustainable price, buyers are held to the Fairtrade minimum price and the farmers won’t be affected. If the market price is higher than the Fairtrade minimum, buyers of Fairtrade products must pay the higher price. This ensures that the farmers will always be getting the best deal. So in a sense it’s a security net for farmers, and gives them a bit of stability.

Who benefits from Fairtrade labelling? 

The Fairtrade brand was made mostly to benefit farmers in developing countries, especially in Central and South America, Africa, and parts of Asia. It gives farmers better market access and safe working conditions.

There’s also the Fairtrade premium, which is separate from the Fairtrade price. The premium is a sum of money that goes into a communal fund that workers and farmers can use to improve their community. They can use it for projects like education, healthcare, and farm improvements. In this way, Fairtrade helps not only the farmers, but also their communities.

How does someone get certified Fairtrade?

To be certified Fairtrade, there is a certification process done by Fairtrade Canada. For example, the farm has to be free of child and slave labour, the workers must have the right to unionize, and they have to adhere to the United Nations charter of Human Rights. The products have to be grown and harvested to Fairtrade standards and production is closely monitored to ensure the integrity of the products sold.

So these are the social and economical aspects of Fairtrade, but what about the environment?

The certification also includes considerations for the protection and conservation of the environment. Think of it this way. Before Fairtrade, farmers might have had to use unsustainable agricultural practices to make ends meet, but with Fairtrade, the farming process should encourage the protection of their ecosystem, and they should be using less harmful chemicals. Fairtrade farmers aren’t allowed to use genetically modified crops, they must crop rotations, and are required to source water sustainably. Keeping their environment clean and healthy will mean that the farmers can sustain themselves in the long run instead of just reaping short-term profits.

What is the ultimate goal of the Fair Trade movement? 

The long-term goal of any non-governmental organization is to not have to exist. Right now farmers are getting a good and fair price for their product, safe working conditions, ecological sustainability, good market access, and food for their families because of Fairtrade. Ideally at one point in the future, farmers can have all these things without needing Fairtrade labelling to regulate them; those conditions will just be the norm.

Are there any other Fairtrade products other than coffee, chocolate, and tea?

Those are definitely the most common products that you see on the market. but there are also Fair Trade cotton, flowers, spices, wine, and even soccer balls, basketballs, and footballs! There is actually a pretty wide-range of products, although right now they are more obscure.

There has been a large Organic movement in North America, do you think the same thing will happen or is happening with Fair Trade? 

There will always be some amount of skepticism that goes along with anything that involves some sort of labeling. That definitely happened with Organic items and there will also be that kind of dialogue with Fair Trade. Ultimately, I hope more people will buy Fairtrade products while conserving the integrity of the Fairtrade label.

How does Engineers Without Borders fit into all of this?

EWB Canada as an organization has lots of projects, such as promoting the Canadian Fairtrade Network. EWB itself is more focused on the outreach aspect of Fair Trade, making it more accessible and visible on the Canadian market. Our goal is to increase available Fairtrade products on campus at a student-friendly price.

What does the Fair Trade section of the McGill EWB chapter do?

McGill is now Fairtrade certified, which means there are Fairtrade products in the campus cafeterias, the residence cafeterias, and the student-run stores on campus. Aside from promoting Fair Trade, we do outreach and awareness. For example, we had Fair Trade Campus Week in September, and a Halloween chocolate sale in October. We sold Fairtrade chocolate bars and bite-sized chocolates in cute Halloween themed bags.

Other than going to the grocery store and buying Fairtrade products, how else can people get involved or support Fair Trade? 

People can support or volunteer with EWB. They can also tell their friends and family about Fairtrade products. For example, if everyone starts buying Fairtrade coffee, it makes a big difference to the farmers’ lives. There is also a Fair Trade Montreal for people who are interested. Right now, most of our promotions about fair trade are geared towards engineers and FDA/McConnell since our origins are in EWB. However, we hope to eventually reach a broader range of students in all different faculties!

If you would like to support Fair Trade on campus, make sure to check out the Fair Trade Corner in the FDA hallway, right across from the Engineering Advising Office. They are there on Mondays and Fridays from 9:30 to 3:30, ready to fill you up with warm and delicious coffee, and if you’re lucky, they might also have some home-baked goodies. If coffee is not your thing they also have tea and hot chocolate, all Fairtrade of course. If you need some caffeine to refuel your study attempts, while also supporting a good cause, Fairtrade is the way to go.

Many Thanks to Jess for doing this interview. For more information on Fair Trade, visit  

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