Free Trade, Fair Trade or Fairtrade – what’s the difference?

In Brexit Britain, there has been much reporting of the need to establish new bilateral Free Trade agreements, occasionally these arrangements are described as “free and fair”. What criteria are needed to identify trade as such?

“Free Trade” is a model of unregulated foreign trade devised by Adam Smith and David Ricardo in the eighteenth century. It’s not a system without cost, but without tariffs, allowing products, services and people to move in and out of countries. For some economists, Free Trade is still considered a key ideal to pursue, although Free Trade Agreements tend to identify the commodities that will be allowed to cross borders easily.

In many family homes the most common three-word phrase is not “I love you” but rather “It’s not fair”. From that some deduce that children have a natural sense of justice, but closer inspection might suggest that the “It’s not fair” should include the words “to me” and the sense of injustice is in fact self-directed. When Theresa May refers to “Free and Fair” trade agreements, she is talking about ones in which Britain does not lose out; fair to us perhaps, but what about other parts of the world, who have no representation at the negotiating table?

What do we mean by Fair Trade? That’s quite an easy question, isn’t it? It refers to purchases that give us a warm fuzzy feeling about doing the right thing for people in other parts of the world because producers are getting a good deal. Many organisations signal support for Fair Trade, including Rainforest Alliance, WFTO (World Fair Trade Organisation), Alta-Eco, IFAT (International Fair Trade Association), Fair for Life. Some retailers now advertise their positive relationships with their overseas producers, calling these connections better than Fair Trade; firms include Waitrose, Whittards and even Nestle’s.  The Fair Trade moment has been active for over 40 years, but what gives any of these organisations the right to describe products as Fair Trade or even better than Fair Trade? Shouldn’t it do much more than give us a warm, fuzzy feeling and in a post truth world, can we believe them? What on earth is the difference between Fair Trade and Fairtrade?

Fair Trade is a generic term, but Fairtrade refers to the Fairtrade Foundation and Fairtrade International. 27 February to 12 March is Fairtrade Fortnight, an annual reflection of our responsibilities to people, from around the world, that grow the food we love. It is run by the Fairtrade Foundation, which was started in 1992 by a bevy of Christian Organisations including Christian Aid, Traidcraft, CAFOD and the WI. The Foundation states “Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers”. It is working for people who will not be sat at the Brexit negotiations. Another point of difference with Brexit at the moment is that Fairtrade has clear objectives and criteria for success. Read more about Fairtrade standards at https://www.fairtrade.net/standards/aims-of-fairtrade-standards.html . The Fairtrade Foundation states clearly “many of the farmers and workers who grow our food aren’t getting paid fairly”. One of this year’s Fairtrade Fortnight slogans is “if exploitation left its mark on your food, would you still buy it?” Poverty goes hand in hand with powerlessness and that leads to exploitation. Choosing Fairtrade is one step to addressing those issues. Fairtrade registered products, carrying the Fairtrade Mark will ensure producers receive a guaranteed minimum for their crop and that those around them will benefit from a Community Premium, which the community choose how to spend. Also note, that if items carry this mark, 100% of the content that can be Fairtrade is Fairtrade registered.

Where does that leave us and the question of the title? Well, Free Trade is not free and rarely, if ever, fair. Fairness can be difficult to judge, it may depend on where you are standing, but it helps if you have a measure of what success looks like. Fair Trade is a generic term, but still useful especially when buying items of complex origins like crafts. Fairtrade, along with the registered Fairtrade mark, refers to the work of the Fairtrade Foundation and Fairtrade International supporting farmers and workers growing commodities like tea, coffee, sugar, bananas as well as mining gold. The Foundation is willing to issue the mark to manufacturers, schools, towns and even Churches that fulfil Fairtrade criteria.

This Fairtrade Fortnight, don’t feed exploitation; try something new to you that carries the Fairtrade mark.

You can also help spread the Fairtrade message. Even if you are now thinking “Well everybody knows that!”, try sharing this article with someone from your congregation. Although about 80 per cent of people recognise the Fairtrade Mark, you might be surprised how little they know about what it promises.

Dr Jane Canning
Diocesan Fairtrade Champion

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