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Ethiopian women sort coffee beans at a long table

Every time I visit a supermarket, I have the feeling that its space is divided into two universes: the small one, full of products labeled ‘BIO’ and ‘Fair Trade’, and the bigger one around it, filled with non-labeled products.

The smaller universe is starting to attract more and more customers. We’re begining to understand that every single shopping choice affects not only our lifestyle or health but also the well being of all the people within the supply chain.

Consumers  more frequently demand answers to questions like: how much does the farmer who grew my coffee earn? Are there any children working on his plantation instead of attending school? Does he provide  health care for his workers? We also want to know - how does the product affect our health? Does the importer play fair with us and with producers? Do big corporations tell us everything?

The reality of supermarkets in the Global North counties

Product labels should give us the answers to all of the above questions. They were created to assure us that a product fulfills all our expectations. The purpose of the ‘BIO’ label is to inform us that the product will have a positive impact on our health and will not harm us. ‘Fair Trade’ implies that the product doesn’t negatively impact its producer. We’re all getting used to paying more for the comfort of having a clear conscience by making ethical purchases. But do we really know what we’re paying for? Are we really contributing to a better world? Or did a big corporation find in this guilt-free labels a way to tap into an ethical consumer market by using them as a marketing tool?

Fair trade Coffee growers in Tacuba in the Parque Nacional El Imposible, El Salvador



Certificate standards. What do we pay for?  

To be certified with a Fair Trade label, both producers and importers have to follow certain standards. For example:

  • importers have to pay producers a price that covers the costs of production of their crops or  the market price if it’s higher than production cost
  •  importers are obliged to pay a premium that producers can use to invest in their own development projects
  •  both importers and producers are obliged to sign contracts which allow long-term planning
  •  producers must provide workplaces without forced or child labor
  • producers have to to minimize the use of fertilizers, pesticides and move towards using organic fertilizers

What’s the downside?

  •  it’s often said that the Fair Trade certificate is only for the richest producers. Indeed, because of the fee for initial Fair Trade certification and the annual fee to keep the certification, most of the small and poor producers in the developing world who struggle even with feeding themselves properly find the certification process impossible
  • small scale farmers or planter families can be certified only when they form cooperatives, associations or other organized bodies with democratic rules. Administrations of these cooperatives are a breeding ground for abuse and corruption and prevent the transparency that exists in direct trade. Moreover, the current system excludes small family farmers and suppliers who for various reasons cannot form a proper association (for example because the local cooperative is corrupt)
  • there’s no differentiation in the nomenclature of Fair Trade importers, which means that importers can claim that they’re Fair Traders both in a situation when 1% and 100% of their purchases come from certified Fair Trade sources. This causes “green/social washing”, when big corporations like Starbucks or Green Mountain claim that their products are Fair Trade, but the percentage of their Fair Trade import is not public information, and therefore may only be a very small percentage.
Child working in a deep water rice field


The Rainforest Alliance Certification is a response to the deforestation problem associated with agriculture.

Certificate standards. What do we pay for?

To gain certification, certain standards have to be followed:

  • farms which coexist with natural forest cover are obliged to keep 40% of the coverage canopy
  • farmers are not allowed to change natural water courses
  • producers are allowed to use fertilizers and pesticides but they must provide a buffer zone of natural vegetation between crop areas and areas of human use. Producers are obliged to provide protective equipment for workers handling herbicides, pesticides and other harmful substances
  • harmful practices like wildlife trafficking and dumping untreated wastewater are not allowed
  • children under 15 are not allowed to work on plantations

What’s the downside?

  • the biggest controversy around The Rainforest Alliance Certificate is that it’s allowed to be used if a minimum of 30% of the product contains components meeting the standards. The proportion should be indicated on the package, but still the buyer doesn't know about the conditions under which the other 70% was grown
  • gaining the certificate doesn’t provide producers with a guaranteed minimum price for their crops, which could cover production and living costs
  •  there’s no organic requirement on Rainforest Alliance certified producers which means that using herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers is allowed
  • the criteria about youth labour are not met in reality. For example, producers are obliged to get parental permission for children aged 15-18 to work on farms. This is not a solution, because  most  families are forced by poor financial conditions to send children over 15 to work instead of school
  • the certification process is supported by the major buyers like Nespresso (Nestle), Starbucks and McDonalds, who can use the The Rainforest Alliance to provide themselves with “green PR” and to tap into an ethical consumer market
A woman picks coffee on the slopes of cooperative Ciudad Barrios in El Salvador, by Rainforest Alliance Guatemala


Bird Friendly is a certification process created by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC), which is part of the National Zoo in Washington. Bird Friendly standards are the strictest of the third-party environmental standards.

Certificate standards. What do we pay for?  

A number of standards must be met in order to gain certification:

  • producers must meet organic standards first
  • meeting organic standards (no herbicides can be used)
  • farms which coexist with natural forest cover are obliged to keep 40 % of the coverage canopy. This canopy is the home for almost as much biodiversity as untouched forest

What’s the downside?

  • As with any of the certification programs, there are costs involved such as initial and annual fees, which small producers and family-owned farms in developing countries cannot afford


Dolphin Safe is a certificate created by the Earth Island Institute which monitors fishing companies to ensure that dolphins are protected during fishing for tuna destined for canning.

Certificate standards. What do we pay for? 

  • dolphins are not intentionally chased, netted or encircled during fishing for tuna
  • fishermen are not allowed to use drift gill nets to catch tuna
  • no net setting is allowed in or around places where dolphins dwell
  • no by-catch dolphins are allowed to be killed or seriously injured
  • each fishing trip by vessels weighing 400 gross tons and above in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean must have an independent observer on board
  • fish from a ‘dolphin unfriendly’ source cannot be added to the can at any stage

What’s the downside?

  • dolphin-friendly labels placed on tuna cans suggest that fishing tuna is environmentally friendly. The label indicates that the hunt doesn’t contain dolphins but says nothing about other species or the environmental impact of the by-catch itself
Bycatch affects many species in a marine ecosystem

The reality of certificates is a great example of how a noble idea changes into a marketing tool when big corporations use it to broaden their consumer market. The above article describes only a few of the most popular certificates. There are many more labels that can be found on products, especially local labels, and each of them meet different standards. And in this moment when we hold the labeled product in our hand, the main question is: which label should we follow? It’s always a personal choice but I can share mine with you. Personally, I support Bird Friendly products instead of products labeled with The Rainforest Alliance. The standards of the Bird Friendly certificate are much stricter than The Rainforest Alliance’s and leave less space for a lack of transparency. As I mentioned, there are some big corporations involved in The Rainforest Alliance certification process and this weakens my trust in it. But we can easily avoid the corporate products by purchasing alternatives or just stop shopping for them as in the case of tuna. We don't need fish meat to survive and I believe that there’s no compromise here – we should protect dolphins as well as tunas and the entire marine ecosystem.

A fairer system of  trade is required  against a background of conventional trade failing to deliver sustainable livelihoods and development opportunities to people in the poorest countries of the world.

Kevin Shakespeare "Trade for Good"

When it comes to Fair Trade I don’t believe that it’s fair – because it’s not fair for everyone. For me, fair means equality for everybody. In a situation where the certificate is becoming a standard on an ethical consumer market and small farmers can’t afford the certification process, it’s harmful and discriminatory to them. On the other hand, the Fair Trade certificate is a chance for those who can afford the label. Personally, I search for products alternative to those with a Fair Trade label. And they’re easy to find! Not only we can visit a small local coffee shop or roastery and ask about their suppliers but there are some great initiatives like Zapatista cooperative where we can buy a tasty, fair coffee and join international solidarity movement. Same goes for holiday destination. We can choose places where our travelling dollars make a big difference, like Nepal, and through our purchases there support the direct trade procedures. This way, we’ll easily notice the paradox which shows that real Fair Trade products are not labeled Fair Trade.

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