Are fair-trade products really more environmentally friendly?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Oct. 21 2008 7:04 AM

Is Fair Trade Green?

Making sense of sanctimonious product labels.

Here's one that's been bothering me for a while: Are fair-trade products really more environmentally friendly? People are always equating the two concepts, but they don't seem related to me. How can I be confident that a fair-trade item is also green?

The rise of the "ethical" consumer hasn't just created a market for greener products—it's also created a market for new labels meant to show that those products have been vetted on your behalf. But for the average shopper, the labels can get confusing pretty fast. It's tempting to assume that any chocolate bar with a sticker including words like earth or fair must be good for the environment and good for workers and probably helps grandmothers cross the street, too.

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That's just not the case. But to answer your question, let's focus on items that are officially "fair-trade certified." (That means we're ignoring labels like bird-friendly, Rainforest Alliance-approved, UTZ certified, or Direct Trade—alas.) Traditionally, the fair-trade designation has been associated more closely with labor standards than the environment, suggesting that workers in far-off places are enjoying better wages and conditions than they would for producing products under conventional labels. But any product that's certified as fair trade must also meet a set of environmental standards determined by a group called Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International.

In some respects, these restrictions are very straightforward—for example, the certification process specifically bans this list of pesticides (PDF). The standards are more general in other respects, telling producers to leave buffer zones around conservation areas, minimize water use for irrigation, and ensure that organic waste is "disposed of in a sustainable manner." Fair-trade advocates argue that the eco-benefits extend beyond these simple rules: By helping to promote smaller producers, the label helps those who are most likely to use sustainable, traditional growing methods that are better for the environment.

Keep in mind that fair trade does not equal organic: The international labeling group encourages, but does not require, producers to "work towards organic practices where socially and economically practical." According to Transfair USA—the group that implements these standards in the United States—more than 60 percent of fair-trade coffee is also organic. There is also substantial overlap between fair-trade coffee and "bird friendly," shade-grown varieties—but one doesn't imply the other. Still, if you assume the certifiers are doing their job, fair trade appears likely to be greener than the conventional stuff you'd find in a supermarket.

Still, critics have raised some big concerns. The first, pointed out by regular Slate contributor Tim Harford, is that the promise of higher wages through fair-trade arrangements may provide farmers with an incentive to overproduce (subscription required). (More broadly, Harford has argued that fair-trade farmers may not receive much benefit from that higher price you pay—a claim you can read more about here and here.) Not only would overproduction keep the rest of the world's farmers poor, but it would result in more and more of the world's land being cleared for farming. But these concerns may be overstated: Fair-trade certification generally bans the use of virgin forest land, and there is little evidence that its small-scale adoption has caused any overproduction. Washington State University professor Daniel Jaffee actually found that the certification had a positive impact on land use among one group of Mexican coffee growers—while also encouraging better practices surrounding water protection and soil erosion.

A second worry is that fair-trade products, by definition, are produced outside the country, so they need to travel a fair distance to get to your home. If the items are shipped by sea, the impact may not be so bad—as the Lantern has pointed out before, the emissions impact of long ocean hauls may be less than trucking a product within the United States. (Besides, if you crave a product like chocolate or coffee, domestic farms aren't going to do you much good, anyway.) A few types of perishable fruits and vegetables are more likely to be shipped by air, which raises more serious concerns. In Britain, the result has been a touchy debate over whether it's better to increase trade with Africa or to reduce emissions from the air freighting of otherwise environmentally sound produce.

Here's the bottom line: If you care about both global poverty and climate change, you can't always have it both ways. The Lantern suggests you keep things in perspective: Boycotting bananas from the Dominican Republic may reduce your carbon footprint a tad, but you'll make a bigger dent by putting that hamburger meat back on the shelf once in a while—and you won't be cutting a poor grower out of the global economy.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Jacob Leibenluft is a writer from Washington, D.C.