Fair Trade Food and Clothing Basics

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Two smiling factory workers

Perhaps you’ve seen a Fair Trade label on a bag of coffee beans, a chocolate bar wrapper or even an REI Co-op T-shirt. But do you really know what Fair Trade means or why you should care about it? In this article, we’ll help you understand:

  • What Fair Trade is
  • Why you should buy Fair Trade Certified™ items
  • How to shop for Fair Trade Certified™ items

Shop for Fair Trade™ certified items 


What is Fair Trade?

Employees sewing garments in a fair trade clothing factory

Simply put, when you’re shopping and you see the Fair Trade Certified™ seal, it means the product has been certified to comply with Fair Trade principles, which require producers and manufacturers to promote sustainable livelihoods and safe working conditions for farmers and workers. There are various global organizations, including Fair Trade USA, Fairtrade International and Fair for Life, that certify Fair Trade products.

Fair Trade USA, a nonprofit organization and the leading certifier of Fair Trade products in North America, partners with more than 1,000 companies to audit and certify that the products they offer comply. In order for producers and manufacturers to label their goods as Fair Trade, they must meet a 200+ point checklist of rigorous certification criteria. In addition to promoting sustainable livelihoods and safe working conditions, Fair Trade standards also embrace environmental protection, supply chain transparency and community empowerment. For every Fair Trade Certified product sold, farmers and workers earn additional money to invest in their communities.

“Every time you buy something, you’re casting a vote and making a statement about the world you want to live in,” said Jenna Larson, Senior Communications Manager at Fair Trade USA. “Grabbing a cup of Fair Trade coffee in the morning is a simple way to say that you care about the farmers who grew it. Choosing a Fair Trade T-shirt is a way to support dignified conditions for factory workers.”

Back in 1998, coffee was introduced as the first Fair Trade Certified product in the U.S. Since then, the marketplace has grown to include Fair Trade fruits, vegetables, nuts, flowers, seafood and even furniture. One of the latest additions is apparel, including many shorts, pants, shirts and jackets from a variety of brands that you can find at REI.

To learn more about Fair Trade USA, visit their website.


Benefits of Fair Trade

two happy fair trade employees in the workplace
Farmers, workers, consumers and the planet can all benefit from Fair Trade. To see how, here’s a closer look at the components of the Fair Trade USA program:
  • Sustainable livelihoods: Fair Trade farmers and workers earn transparent and stable prices for their crops and products. In coffee, for example, Fair Trade sets a minimum floor price for a pound of coffee beans, which protects farmers when the market dips too low (as it regularly does). When the market price rises, farmers earn the higher amount, always knowing that they will earn enough to cover basic costs.
  • Safe working conditions: Fair Trade standards ensure that farmers and workers around the world benefit from safe working conditions, regulated work hours, freedom of association and maternity leave. There’s zero tolerance for sexual discrimination and slave and child labor.
  • Environmental sustainability: Fair Trade has strict environmental standards, and ensures that factories have a robust environmental management plan to monitor and reduce their impacts in areas related to chemical use, waste disposal, energy use and water use. 
  • Community development and empowerment: When a brand like REI Co-op partners with a factory to produce Fair Trade products, we pay a premium for every item that carries the Fair Trade seal. This is truly what makes Fair Trade unique. That extra money goes directly into a community-managed bank account that belongs to the farmers and/or factory workers, and they are the ones who decide how to use it. Through a democratically elected worker committee, the workers can vote to take the money as a wage bonus or to allocate it for community programs and investments. Some have put the money toward onsite day care, education programs, clean water, health care and even a fleet of bicycles to make transportation to and from the factory faster and more convenient.
  • Values-based shopping: Fair Trade makes it easy for conscientious consumers to shop their values. When you see a Fair Trade Certified™ seal on a product, you know that social, economic and environmental impacts have been considered throughout the entire production process.


Finding Fair Trade Products

When you’re shopping online or in a store, look for one of the globally recognized seals and for product descriptions that mention Fair Trade. You can select this sustainability attribute as you shop on REI.com. You can also find a collection of certified Fair Trade products available from REI Co-op and a number of our leading brand partners.

There are several variations of Fair Trade certifications that enable shoppers to understand which product ingredients and/or portions of the product's supply chain are certified to Fair Trade standards. Here are four variations of Fair Trade certifications that you’re likely to see:

Fair Trade Certified™ [Ingredient]: This label signifies that the product is made using a specific ingredient that is grown on a Fair Trade Certified™ farm, such as cotton or chocolate.

Fair Trade Certified™ Factory or Sewing: Products with these labels are made in a Fair Trade approved facility.

Fair Trade Certified™: For food, this means that 100% of the ingredients are from Fair Trade farms. For apparel and home goods, it means that the product is not only made from Fair Trade materials (like cotton), but that it is processed, cut and sewn at a Fair Trade factory.

FAIRTRADE: This label is managed by Fairtrade International, a credible organization that administers its Fair Trade standard globally. The FAIRTRADE seal can be found on a range of products. While less common at REI, you will frequently see it in grocery stores.

Fair for Life: This certification covers a variety of product types, including food, cosmetics and artisanal textiles. The certification applies throughout the value chain, including producers, manufacturers, traders and brands. Fair for Life includes rigorous monitoring to ensure certified materials are kept separate (and traceable) from origin to buyer.


REI Product Impact Standards

REI has established the REI Product Impact Standards, which apply to all brands and products sold at the co-op. These standards outline our expectations of all brands sold at REI regarding how key environmental, social and animal welfare impacts are managed. The standards also identify preferred attributes—the most credible, relevant and impactful features that support positive impacts across our product offering. We encourage brand partners to use for their products, including standards covered in this article. Look for products with these features while shopping at REI to help support better ways of making gear.