You’ve thought about where your purchases might come from and decided you want to shop more ethically…. but your bright-eyed enthusiasm fades when you aren’t sure what is ‘ethical’, apart from those tie-died hemp harem pants. Disheartened, you give up.

Yep, this is what I did.

Take 15 minutes or so to read this 3-part series and arm yourself with knowledge for the next time you go shopping. Alternatively, bookmark this page and check in when you’re about to use your bank card to make sure that your impending purchase aligns with your values.

From experience, it can be difficult to shop ethically, particularly if you’re looking for products that are ‘ethical’ in the sense that they are kind to people. The law student in me thinks it’s quite easy for a company to mislead consumers with vague claims of being ‘socially responsible’ (compared to other ethical products, such as those which are kind to animals, where it’s a little less ambiguous–it’s either tested on animals or it’s not).

A few words about “fair trade” versus “Fair Trade” versus “Fairtrade”

This isn’t just a string of inconsistencies on my part. There is a difference between these three terms. A product or an organisation described as ‘fair trade’ may not meet the same standards as a product described as “Fair Trade” or “Fairtrade”.

“Fair trade” describes the general concept; “fair trade” is a type of trade that ensures producers receive fair prices and reasonable conditions.

“Fair Trade” is a specific definition of the concept and is based on ‘Fair Trade principles’, which are contained within the Charter of Fair Trade Principles. The Charter and principles were developed by two non-government, not-for-profit organisations called the World Fair Trade Organisation (or WFTO) and Fairtrade International (also known as Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International or FLO). “Fair Trade” can also refer to a certification and labelling system by Fair Trade USA (formerly known as TransFair USA).

“Fairtrade” is a certification and labeling system by FLO.

Certifications provide reassurance that there is no divergence between what you consider to be socially responsible and the company’s claims. Producers typically pay for the right to display a certification mark and the right can be taken away if they do not meet the guidelines when monitored. But it can still be hard to know what to look for, since there is no universal certification system for what it means for an item to be produced and traded ‘fairly’ especially for clothing. And though the range and availability of certified products is growing, what do you do when you can’t find a certified product?

I’ve compiled this series to help reach a clearer understanding of when buying can be really good for the world, versus not so good – and help you make an informed choice about where you want your buying habits to sit on the spectrum.

For the basics, download the Good versus Not So Good Infographic. For more detail on when purchases can be good for the world, keep reading the first part of the The Fairtrade Spectrum series.

There are many different certifications and new ones pop up all the time. Learning about them, their alternatives and their impacts is an ongoing journey, so this spectrum may be updated from time to time.


Fairtrade certified


Where could you expect to find the Fairtrade Certification Mark?

On products. Mainly raw materials and food products outside North America. On One Fair Day, I quite often talk about ‘Fairtrade’, since I am looking for and writing about individual products from Australia.

The type of food products that are (or should be) certified are valuable commodities in high demand — think coffee, tea, cocoa products such as chocolate, and quinoa — that are usually produced by farmers in developing countries.

The Fairtrade certification also applies to non-food products, such as flowers, sports balls, and cotton.

The good

It fights poverty. The Fairtrade system tackles poverty by empowering producers; with a fair wage and decent working conditions, producers are able to buy enough food with a little bit of spare change… And this spare change goes a long way! It allows producers to pay for other basic necessities, such as education, shelter, and medical attention.

It’s widely available. There’s a very good chance that you’ll find products with the Fairtrade Mark at places you usually frequent, like your local supermarket or coffee shop. The Fairtrade Mark was created to unite several existing labelling initiatives and is now used across Australia, Europe, Asia, Africa on a variety of brands and products, particularly food products.

It’s trustworthy. Monitoring and evaluation are conducted by an independent corporate body called FLO-CERT to ensure that producers and traders are complying with Fairtrade standards, including the payment of a fair minimum price, and no forced or child labour.

It’s sustainable. The Fairtrade system tackles poverty by paying producers a minimum wage that covers their costs of production and basic costs of living… but that’s not all; the Fairtrade price includes a “Fairtrade Premium” paid above the minimum wage. The Fairtrade Premium is invested into local businesses and infrastructure- such as schools, roads, clean drinking water, and good sanitation- to empower the whole community to work their way out of poverty, long-term. Schools enable children to become educated professionals. Roads open up remote communities to international trade. Clean drinking water and basic sanitation improve health, reduce disease, and –contrary to popular belief – actually reduce population. More about this last point in another post.

It’s good for the environment and your health, too. To receive Fairtrade certification, producers are required to meet environment standards that minimise the amount of energy, chemicals, water, and pesticides that are used during production.

It empowers us, as consumers. By buying Fairtrade, we demonstrate that we care about the people who make the products we consume. We can use our buying practices to steer ‘unethical’ companies and governments in the right direction – away from practices that hurt people and the environment for profit.

The not so good

Composite products. Fairtrade certification gets a little trickier when it comes to products that contain more than one ingredient. A product does not have to be made from 100% Fairtrade ingredients to carry the Fairtrade Mark. This is not necessarily a bad thing – perhaps just something to be aware of.

An example is a chocolate bar containing cocoa, sugar, and milk. It is likely that the cocoa and sugar is imported from producers in the developing world and the milk is bought locally. In this case, it is not likely (or necessary) that the milk is Fairtrade certified. Nonetheless, it is still possible for the chocolate bar to carry the Fairtrade Mark if:

-More than 50% of its total ingredients (i.e. the cocoa and the sugar) are sourced from certified Fairtrade producer organisations.
-There is a significant ingredient (i.e. the cocoa) that is sourced from a certified Fairtrade producer organisation. A significant ingredient must make up more than 20% of the product’s dry weight.

Products by companies producing both Fairtrade and non-Fairtrade products. Some companies have only some products that are Fairtrade certified. For example, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk range carries the Fairtrade Certification Mark but other bars in the brand do not. For large companies like Cadbury, it is not always feasible to keep Fairtrade ingredients separate from non-Fairtrade ingredients at every stage in the production. In other words, the cocoa in a Fairtrade Cadbury Dairy Milk bar may not be 100% Fairtrade. Equally, a Cadbury Hazelnut bar may contain Fairtrade certified cocoa, even though it does not carry the Fairtrade Mark. Again, this is not necessary a bad thing. In my opinion, some Fairtrade certification is better than none. And while it is important to ensure that long supply chains are traceable, the move towards becoming Fairtrade by global corporate giants is paramount.

Clothing. You might have noticed a pattern emerging: where there are more stages involved in the production of a product, the supply chain is longer and Fairtrade certification becomes more complicated. The Fairtrade Certification Mark applies to materials such as cotton or high-percentage cotton composites and guarantees that the cotton itself was produced under fair conditions. In other words, you know from the Fairtrade Certification Mark that the producers of the cotton received a fair wage to grow and pick the cotton and then dye and weave it into a material (and any other stages involved in manufacturing material). This is great if you are buying a metre of fabric. However, if you are buying clothing, the Fairtrade Certification Mark does not speak to the conditions under which the material was made into the final product. In practice, it’s pretty unlikely that a garment made from Fairtrade cotton was sewn in a sweatshop – after all, a manufacturer working out of a sweatshop would probably be buying the cheapest possible material.

Fair Trade Certified

Fair Trade Certified logo

Where could you expect to find the Fair Trade Certified mark?

Products in the United States of America and Canada.

The Fair Trade Certified mark by Fair Trade USA is the North American equivalent of the Fairtrade Certification Mark. .

For a product to carry the Fair Trade Certified mark, FLO-CERT must certify that the producer organisations comply with Fairrade standards. For composite products, 100% of the ingredients must be Fairtrade.

Made by a Certified World Fair Trade Organization


Where could you expect to find the WFTO mark?

The World Fair Trade Organization mark is not a product label. As the name suggests, the WFTO Certification applies to organisations across Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, North America and the Pacific. Certifiable organisations are those with Fair Trade central to their mission, objectives, and activities. For example, Oxfam and People Tree.

The good

It fights poverty. Like the Fairtrade system by Fairtrade International, the World Fair Trade Organization system tackles poverty by supporting producers with a fair wage and decent working conditions.

It’s flexible. A limitation (or ‘not so good’) of the Fairtrade system is that it was designed for commodities, such as food and raw materials and so certifying other products, such as clothing and handicrafts, is difficult. The World Fair Trade Organization mark was designed as an alternative certification to complement Fairtrade.

It’s trustworthy. To obtain permission to display the WFTO mark, organisations must successfully go through the WFTO monitoring system and prove they consistently uphold the Fair Trade Principles.

It’s traceable. Since members of the World Fair Trade Organization must be committed to promoting and adhering to Fair Trade, they are uniquely focused on producers. You can usually find information on the producer on the organisation’s website, or on the product itself.

It’s good for the environment and your health, too. Like the Fairtrade system, the WFTO system has minimum environmental standards that organisations must meet during production.

It empowers us, as consumers. Supporting organisations with Fair Trade at their core enables those organisations to grow. Growth of WFTO organisations snowballs positive impact around the world — and send a message to other organisations that they need to concentrate on the ‘triple bottom line’ (profits, people and the environment).

The not so good

Clothing. The World Fair Trade Organization mark guarantees that the garment was made under fair conditions, but it doesn’t speak to whether or not the farmer received a fair price for growing the cotton that became the material. In other words, the WFTO system has the reverse problem to the Fairtrade system when it comes to certifying clothing. But actually, the WFTO system was not intended to certify a garment at all stages of production. Rather, it was set up to complement the Fairtrade system. You can’t do wrong if you buy clothing made from Fairtrade Certified material sewn by a World Fair Trade Organisation! Luckily, most WFTO create products from Fairtrade certified materials.

Made by a Fair Trade Federation organisation


Where could you expect to find the Fair Trade Federation mark?

North America. Like the WFTO, the Fair Trade Federation is a membership system for organisations who demonstrate commitment to Fair Trade but in the USA and Canada.

Fair For Life certified


Where could you expect to find the Fair For Life mark?

Fair for Life is a worldwide certification by the Institute for Marketecology that is based on the FLO’s Fairtrade standards and applies to products – such as oils, herbs, spices, fruit and vegetables, wild crafted products, seafood, livestock products, cut flowers, handicrafts, cotton and textiles.You can also choose to be certified only as a Socially Responsible company, without product certification to demonstrate your clients that your entire company meets high social standards.

The good

It’s flexible. Fair For Life expressly tries to address difficulties in existing fair trade certification systems. The same standards apply for all products and so a wide number of products can be certified.

Clothing.  For clothing, Fair For Life certifies each stage in the supply chain that involves major labour. Like the Fairtrade system, Fair For Life pays a fair trade premium to producers (such as cotton growers). Yet, Fair For Life goes one step further and also pays a premium for workers in cloth manufacturing workshops.

It’s transparent and trustworthy. How and where the fair trade premium is spent is published on the website. Fair For Life eligibility is verified by third party certification.

It’s good for the environment and your health, too. To obtain Fair For Life certification, a product must also meet an acknowledged ecological minimum standard, such as GOTS.

The not so good

No minimum price. Unlike the Fairtrade and Fair Trade systems, Fair for Life does not set a minimum price for good or for the fair trade premium. Rather, the price fair trade premium is set by trade partners and producers based on transparent and open negotiations. There is disagreement over whether this is a good or bad thing. Proponents for setting a minimum price in trade argue that producers living in poverty, as the world’s most vulnerable people, need to be protected from market crashes. Proponents also argue that producers in remote regions have not have much exposure or education as to fair market prices and are often exploited. In the Fair For Life system, the risks of exploitation is largely avoided as IMO checks that the paid prices and premiums are appropriate and fair.

Limited recognition. I haven’t seen the Fair For Life certification mark on a product in Australia. Given that the Fair For Life certification was only launched in 2006, we can expect its prominence to grow in the next few years.


Image from Tumblr

My verdict

These certifications are a guarantee that people and the planet are not harmed or exploited to make goods and, ultimately, make a profit. More than this, products that bear the above certifications can actually help make the world a fairer, more just place by supporting people who are working hard to get out of poverty.

Through buying products that bear one or more of the above certification marks, our purchases can be good for the world and the people that we share it with.

Have you found any products you love that bear one or more of these certification marks? Let me know in the comments!

Continue reading Part 2.

Yours Fairly,




  1. January 16, 2015 / 6:35 AM

    Hey Ashlee! I just wanted to let you know that I really appreciated the whole Fairtrade Spectrum series. I’ve been a silent reader of yours for some time now and am finally “talking” because I recently started a tumblr as a virtual collage of sustainable fashion and linked this page on my site as I found it really useful and hope visitors to my tumblr will too – I hope that’s alright, let me know otherwise!

    • Ashlee
      January 16, 2015 / 5:02 PM

      Thank you so much! I’m so glad you liked it and it’s made my day to learn that you are a regular reader :-) I just checked out your Tumblr and it’s great – I will definitely add it to my list of blogs to read. How fun and useful. :-)

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