The rise of fair trade, a global success story

Consumer movements are a powerful tool for enacting change simply by changing what you put in your shopping basket. Good examples of these are the boycotts of goods made by slave labour in 19th century America and Gandhiji’s Swadeshi movement against imported goods from Britain. These boycotts were instrumental in raising awareness among the general public and bringing about political change.

The history of fair trade

The fair trade movement draws on the same principles of the Khadi movement from the 1920s – those of self-reliance, empowerment and emancipation. Fair trade first started in the 1940s in Europe and the US where handicrafts were sold in NGO shops in support of disadvantaged communities. The modern fair trade movement began in the 1960s when Alternative Trading Organisations (ATOs) were launched and NGOs, such as Oxfam in the UK, began selling handicrafts purchased from producer co-operatives. India has a long been a part of this movement, with over 50 producer organisations exporting products under fair trade terms to Europe for over 40 years.

During the 1980s the fall of global commodity prices pushed many marginalised farmers into terrible poverty, and the fair trade movement began to focus on agricultural commodities as a way of providing farmers with a sustainable income. More and more shoppers got behind products like fair trade coffee, tea, cocoa and bananas, supporting many thousands of poor farmers around the world.

The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) was created in 1989 to improve the livelihoods of disadvantaged producers by promoting and connecting fair trade organisations. Today, the WFTO is a global association of 324 organisations, including fair trade producer associations, producer marketing companies, retailers, fair trade networks and support organisations in over 60 countries. In India, Fair Trade Forum India works to carry WFTO’s work forward.

Fair trade certification

Fair trade certification aimed to bring fair trade principles into the mainstream by offering consumers an easy way to buy fair trade. Organisations that certified fair trade products sprang up across Europe. The first was Max Havelaar in the Netherlands, which certified coffee bought at a fair price from disadvantaged famers in Mexico.

Others gained success across Europe as well as the US, Canada and Australia, coming together in 1997 to create a central certification body, Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International (FLO).Today, fair trade certification is a huge success story, both commercially and for the farmers in the system who have gone from strength to strength.

In 2008, estimated global sales of fair trade certified products reached US$4.1 billion, growing 22% on the previous year despite the recent global economic downturn. Consumers across the world have taken fair trade into their hearts, signing up to their local fair trade town or university campaign and attending fair trade events where they can meet farmers and taste or try on the fruits of their labour.