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Katie Fewings - founder of Ethical Weddings

Supplier Focus: All’s fair in fair trade?

by Katie Fewings

We've been thinking a lot lately about how an ethical business can communicate its message to its clients and potential clients quickly and effectively.

Ethical and eco labels and certification schemes are a popular option so we looked at the Kimberley Process that was designed to certify diamonds as ‘conflict-free' - a priority for couples who don't want a symbol of love tainted with blood - and how its flaws are now undermining the whole industry.

As we move into Fairtrade Fortnight again we thought it a good time to put a much more successful example of ethical labelling under the spotlight: Fairtrade certification and the FAIRTRADE mark.

At Ethical Weddings we ask all our member suppliers whether they use fair trade products to deliver their wedding services or just in the day-to-day running of their business (Fairtrade coffee to kick start the day?). We know that it is a label that our readers recognise and trust - after all, they've been seeing it in the shops for more than a decade now.

It is also exciting that although on the one hand the Kimberley Process appears to be failing, years of work on the part of some dedicated campaigners has brought us Fairtrade and Fairmined certified gold which will give even more meaning to the little hoops of gold we use to pledge our troth.

But because it has been around for a long time now, has the label made us lazy? Are we at risk of relying on it too much?

We asked Paul Allen, author of ‘Your Ethical Business' for his thoughts.

How fair is fair trade?

Paul Allen author of Your Ethical Business

"My feeling about fair trade is that it's generally positive compared to nothing, but there are some problems with it. I'd much rather have genuinely free trade, where people are paid what they should be, than something that distorts the market in sometimes quite odd ways.

"I also know that some of the hurdles that you have to jump through to get accreditation (not to mention the cost) are tough or inappropriate for a lot of producers, some of whom have found that other schemes (for example, Rainforest Alliance - which has its own critics) are more relevant for them.

"For me, the main problem with going against fair trade is what else do you do? Consumers don't want to think. They want to be told: ‘This is good, this is ethical, here's the badge to prove it.'

Global trade is so much more complex than that, especially when you consider social and environmental issues, but consumers don't want to have to consider all of their purchases in minute detail.

Don't make me think

"It's interesting that Starbucks initially tried to do their own thing with ethical coffee sourcing, but even they couldn't really get the message through about what they were doing, so they ended up making all their espresso beans fair trade. Now they're the largest buyers of fair trade coffee in the world.

"Like I say, consumers don't want to think - they just want to see "fair trade" and think that they're doing something good.

"The same argument could apply really with FSC-certified wood - a lot of people have problems with how the scheme works, but it's the biggest stamp of approval around and it's better than nothing.

"So yes, I think a lot of the motivation behind the original idea of fair trade was sound, and I'm sure it continues to support some producer communities in very positive ways. But I'm a bit uneasy about something that, for example, effectively encourages everyone in a particular region to grow very high quality coffee for export (because that's in demand here) when that may not be the most 'sustainable' decision for their community in the long term, and when they're getting just a bit of extra money and support on top of the global coffee price, which is basically dictated by others - so fundamentally not very fair anyway.

What price a cup of coffee?

"I personally also don't like the way that fair trade growers typically only create the raw ingredient. If we really cared about strengthening their communities, we'd help them to actually get the stuff to market - to own the whole process of refining, producing, packaging and so on.

"Coffee is a phenomenally cheap commodity to buy - it has one of the highest mark-ups of any item on the menu in a cafe or restaurant. But the people making all the money on the £2.50 lattes and cappuccinos are the ones bringing it to market here, not the growers.

"I'm not saying it's all bad. A lot of ‘dark greenies' hate anything that they think might not be 100% ethical and "perfect" and I don't want to come across like that. On balance, I think it's probably better than nothing, but we should be wary about believing it's completely ethical."

Over to you

We would love to get your opinions on fair trade in general and the Fairtrade certification scheme and mark in particular.

We do need ways to communicate with our customers that don't take exhaustive explanations. As businesses we may sometimes need to say: "...this is good, this is ethical, here's the badge to prove it." But we want to be sure that the badge really does prove it.

Do you offer your customers fair trade products? Do they ask for them? Do you have stories to share that show why fair trade is worth supporting? Or have you decided not to go down the fair trade route and if so, why?

Send us your thoughts at