Your Fair Trade Coffee and Quinoa Aren’t Improving Farmers’ Lives



When confronted with the ability to make the “ethical” choice at the grocery store, picking up a bag of Fair Trade certified coffee seems like a no-brainer. With a commitment to worthy goals like reducing poverty, empowering women, and supporting education, Fair Trade products appear to put the power of creating a better world in the hands of the purchaser. But the impact may not be a benefit for the poorest workers, and like other food trends, could be negatively impacting the lives of the people producing some of our foods.

A recently released four-year study, Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction in Ethiopia and Uganda, found that Fair Trade certification does not have the positive impact on producers consumers may believe it does. For the report, the University of London researchers collected data from Ethiopia and Uganda in regions where coffee, tea, and flowers are produced. It found that the workers involved in Fair Trade production had very low wages, and they did not enjoy an edge over workers producing the crops that did not carry the certification. Workers engaged in producing the same crops for non-Fair Trade markets enjoyed higher wages than their fair trade counterparts. In the Fair Trade regions, women in particular had lower wages.

“A relatively high proportion of wage workers employed in the production of commodities sold to and through Fairtrade certified channels earned less than 60 per cent of the median wage for equivalent work,” the report states. Even when positives, such as free meals through work could be found, it was often offset by worse overall working conditions for the Fair Trade employees.

The researchers did not go as far as claiming that Fair Trade caused the lower wages, using the evidence to refute the claimed positive correlation between Fair Trade and working conditions. Writing in the recommendations section of the report, the researchers state that before paying a premium, consumers need to be aware of the working conditions on the ground. Otherwise,”if Fairtrade organizations are unable to make any positive difference to the wages and working conditions of those providing the manual labour in the production of certified goods, their claims to ‘ethical trading’ and to make a major contribution to improving the lives of very poor rural people will remain hollow.”

Fair Trade is not the only consumer practice that does not lead to a better quality of life for workers. Food trends, too, can be damaging for the lives of people employed by the craze.