Fair Trade Labels: The Complete Guide

Fair Trade Labels: The Complete Guide

Traidcraft is the home of fair trade. It’s true. We’ve been at the forefront of virtually all the major initiatives to make fair trade a household name in the UK, and it’s our pioneering work that’s made fair trade into what it is today. If you want to know more about us specifically, you can read our home-grown story here.

In the very early days, certifying fair trade wasn’t on anyone’s agenda, but third party verification was becoming important in all walks of life, whether it be cosmetic testing, quality, or health and safety. Certification of fair trade didn’t happen in the UK until the 1990s, and nowadays it’s easy to be confused by all the different certifications out there. Which is the best? Is there even a best one? And what do they mean?

This is the story of how our pioneering path branched out into the world of labels, and why we believe in a range of fair trade certifications, not just the one you’d expect…

A world before the Fairtrade label  (1960 to 1992)

Fair trade started as early as the 1940s in North America, and then through the 50s and 60s various initiatives throughout Europe which were linked to development organisations that started to buy and sell products from various artisan groups in the global south.

They did this under the banner of ‘trade not aid’ (which obviously influenced how Traidcraft later got its name).

No one used the term ‘fair trade’ in those days. In the 1970s it was called ‘alternative marketing’ which then evolved to ‘alternative trade’. Traidcraft’s very first catalogue in 1979 described us as an organisation applying ‘justice in the world through responsible and fair trading’, which was maybe the first documented instance of something resembling ‘fair trade’ being used.

In those early days there were no certification labels at all. We were making our own way as we went along, trying to work out the best way of trading directly with disadvantaged artisans and growers while trying to be development experts at the same time. We also had to make our venture work sustainably – so it was definitely a steep learning curve.

These were chaotic, brilliant, sometimes precarious, fun, inspiring, crazy and creative years. Producers were friends, partners, suppliers, political activists, and campaigners, and we were all dedicated to building a better trading world together.

The need for a fair trade label

But all of this had its limits. We were doing amazing work with our artisans, but as we entered the world of commodities we were never going to be able to help all the growers and craftspeople that we wanted to. The whole system needed to be bigger. It needed to go mainstream.

But this posed a real dilemma – how do you stay true to authentic fair trade when working with supermarkets and other big industrial food companies? Their hearts don’t exactly beat with a raging passion for producer development. If anything, the big food companies were precisely the forces that fair trade was trying to challenge. And now – we were going to have to forge a relationship with them.

The answer was to create a label. A label that would ensure that at least the product, if not the supermarket or food company behind it, had been fairly traded. It would be well-known, accessible, and found on every supermarket shelf and kitchen cupboard.

So, we created the Fairtrade Mark

In 1988, over in the Netherlands they’d already worked out that the solution was to create an independent label, which told consumers that this product was somehow different to the others next to it on the shelf.

They called their label ‘Max Havelaar’, the Dutch equivalent of our ‘Robin Hood’, which described their views on big business perfectly.

We banded together with CAFOD, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Global Justice Now, and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes to set up the UK equivalent, and we called it Fairtrade. The name was simple. Memorable. And it demonstrated exactly what we were doing without jargon or complicated lingo. It was the language of the everyday – exactly what we wanted fair trade to become.

But of course, behind every label there are some important structures – an organisation that promotes the label and earns licensing income (this would become the Fairtrade Foundation in the UK), an organisation that writes the standards that give the label meaning (Fairtrade International in Germany), and an organisation that audits and certifies that the standards have been followed (FLO-Cert, also in Germany).

In those early days, Traidcraft hosted and organised the very first meeting which lead to the creation of the Fairtrade Foundation, and their first office was registered here at the current HQ of Traidcraft in Gateshead (not many people know that!)

Why Fairtrade isn’t the same as fair trade, and why there are other fair trade labels around

But the story doesn’t end here. The Fairtrade label isn’t the only label that certifies fair trade, though it might be the most well-known in the UK. Fair trade has always meant such different things to different people, so it’s no wonder that other organisations have tried to drive change in the way they see best, rather than conform to one set of principles. At Traidcraft, we like the Fairtrade standards, but they only capture a tiny fraction of what we really believe fair trade is all about. 

For instance, Fairtrade has standards for just a few commodities like tea, cocoa, sugar, coffee, juice, honey etc. It doesn’t cover our charcoal, rubber or palm oil, for example, let alone any of our handcrafted products. And where does this leave us in terms of pioneering new fair trade products?

Also, the system is for products, not people. It’s possible for the world’s most uncaring, profit-driven food companies to trade in only a little bit of Fairtrade coffee or cocoa, and as long as they meet Fairtrade’s product standards, their product is certified ‘fair’. The company isn’t itself looked at, and this doesn’t seem quite right to us.

So, in order to capture the wider world of fair trade development, Traidcraft recognises other certification systems that are just as good as, and in some respects quite a bit better than Fairtrade. We don’t judge - we respect all these systems equally, celebrating their differences, and recognising that it’s in diversity that we can learn from each other and truly change the world.

Though it’s a complex issue, we believe that any label must adhere to two principles

1. Are the growers and artisans part owners of the system, or at least able to help define the standards and the rules?

2. Do the standards always capture the three pillars of economic, social and environmental development?

These principles are at the heart of fair trade.

So, what other labels does Traidcraft support?

In this spirit, we support:

Fairtrade: Owned by producers and licensing organisations (like the Fairtrade Foundation), primarily product focused but with no requirements for the organisation to be a fair trade company.

The World Fair Trade Organization: Since December 2017, we’ve been a WFTO Guaranteed Fair Trade Organization, ensuring our residence in an international system which is producer and trader owned, and brings makers, growers, and buyers together in a forum for learning.

The Small Producers Symbol: Based in Mexico, this is the only system written, owned, and developed primarily by small producers in developing countries.

IMO's Fair for Life: This is an organic and product focused fairtrade certifier. We use this label for our Palm Oil (FairPalm).

Naturland Fair: A system owned by organic farmers that makes sure that both the product and the organisation are rooted in doing things fairly.

Eco-Cert: A system developed in France, and now recognised by French law, as a certifier for ‘la Commerce Equitable.’ This system is organic, and product focused.

Each one of these organisations has its own fascinating history, far more than we can include right here.

And there’s a world beyond labels too

But the real lesson here is that fair trade is much larger than labels. We were out there, the first to sell fair trade coffee, tea, sugar, juice, honey, chocolate, rubber (the list goes on) way before standards and fair trade labels even existed. In many cases it was our work that helped create these standards in the first place!

We know fair trade inside and out. We know about standards and about how to practically verify against those standards. We’ve been doing it for years, travelling the world to make sure that what we sell as fair trade measures up.

We did this before fair trade labelling existed and will continue to do so. It is for this reason that retailers like the Co-operative use us as an independent ‘label’ for some of their products that are not covered by Fairtrade standards – rubber gloves and charcoal being a couple of examples. That’s why those Co-op brands can be called fair trade, and carry the Traidcraft brand on pack.

We’re continuing to look for new ways to do fair trade, pushing the boundaries, going beyond, challenging the norm, and even creating new and better standards along the way. So, if you see the word ‘Traidcraft’ on a product, you can be 100% sure that we have done everything we can to ensure that it really is, in every conceivable way, as fair trade as it can be.

This is what we were born to do. It’s in our DNA to lead, not to follow. Come with us on our next adventure.