Skip to Content

Fair Trade Foods

Proponents of “fair trade” commerce strive to support farmers in Third World countries, the source of many of the world’s agricultural commodities. First and foremost is the promotion of a system that gives farmers a fair price for their crops and protects them from market slumps. Other priorities are the improvement of working conditions, elimination of child labor, and the encouragement of environmentally friendly and sustainable agriculture. A number of organizations around the world and in the United States promote varieties of fair trade in coffee, tea, spices, cocoa, chocolate, herbs, fresh and dried fruits, sugar, rice, and other products (in addition to handicrafts). Most fair trade proponents encourage, but do not insist upon, organic production. Some organizations concentrate on specific world regions: South or Central America, for example.

Coffee stands at the forefront of the worldwide fair trade movement. Coffee is also one of the products most amenable to being sold on a fair trade basis without adding too much to the final cost of the product, as is the case with fair trade bananas. Fair trade food products of all kinds—from chocolate bars to rice—are available at natural foods markets, but fair trade coffee is more widely distributed. American coffee giant Starbucks claims to be North America’s largest purchaser of Fair Trade Certified coffee; critics counter that the chain, which is accountable for a full two percent of worldwide coffee consumption, could do much more to promote the concept. A number of smaller companies specialize in fair trade coffee.

Fair trade (often spelled as a single word—Fairtrade—especially in labeling and certification) has its critics. On the one hand, opponents of globalization believe the movement is little more than a “feel-good” rationalization for destructive agricultural and trade practices, or else a paternalistic “too little too late” gesture. At the other extreme, certain economic critics believe the entire notion threatens to short-circuit the natural cycles of international markets. Under any view, however, the fair trade movement is an increasing social and economic force. Many if not most fair trade foods are also positioned as organic, environmentally friendly (including “bird-friendly” and “shade-grown” coffees), or otherwise socially desirable. A significant group of American consumers will spend more for fair trade foods, be it on their everyday coffee or on the chocolates they hand out to neighborhood children on Halloween.