Is buying Fairtrade a good way to reduce your social and environmental impact?

How Fairtrade is tackling poverty, inequality, and climate change

Fairtrade is a foundation which aims to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people, and to narrow the gap between rich and poor. They do this by setting standards (social, economic, and environmental) for food producers, ensuring that farmers and workers in low-income communities are paid fairly for their contribution to the products that we enjoy. For the consumer, buying a product stamped with the Fairtrade logo means that you can guarantee that these minimum standards have been met.

So, is buying Fairtrade products an effective way to reduce your social and environmental impact as an individual?

Reducing your environmental impact with Fairtrade

When we think of Fairtrade, we mostly think of their social improvements, ensuring that poor workers are fairly paid. But they’re also working towards environmental sustainability with their certified farms and producers. The Fairtrade Standards enforce a minimum level of environmental protection, including the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, maintaining soil and water quality, and more. They also run training programs for farmers on sustainable practices in farming.

This is all great, but if you’re buying Fairtrade to reduce your environmental impact, there are a couple of other things to be aware of.

Firstly, in terms of the environment, Fairtrade’s focus is on adaptation and mitigation, rather than prevention. They want to ensure that farmers are able to respond quickly to the extreme weather and climate changes that global warming is causing, and they claim that fair pay and increased wages is the way that they can support this:

“The increased revenue from receiving a minimum price acts as a safety net and the premium gives farmers a much needed cash injection to respond to climate emergencies like harvest failure.” [1]

The effects of climate change will hit the poorest communities the hardest, and Fairtrade hopes to reduce this impact. This is, of course, an extremely worthwhile mission. However, it’s focused on the outcomes of a changed climate, rather than preventing those outcomes in the first place — if you, personally, are interested in climate change prevention, then there may be more effective ways to use your capital.

The other thing to note is that Fairtrade is entirely focused on the poorest farming communities on the planet, and the commodities which they produce. On the most part, these are all commodities which could not be grown outside of these communities due to weather and climate conditions, such as bananas, cocoa, cotton, and coffee. Therefore, if you’re living in the UK or other parts of the Western world, they’re all items that will have flown pretty far to reach your shopping trolley, which obviously comes with an environmental impact in terms of the carbon emissions from flying.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t drink coffee or buy bananas. But it is worth saying that the increasingly popularity of these products in the West has negative environmental impacts. Coffee, for instance, is now the second most tradable commodity after oil. This has meant huge shifts in the way that coffee is produced, in order to keep up with demands. Traditionally coffee plants were grown under shaded canopies of trees, which meant that topsoil erosion was prevented and so no chemical fertilisers were needed. As demand has grown farmers have needed extra land to grow coffee plants, and so the method of ‘sun cultivation’ has taken over, with coffee plants grown in plantations with no canopy. This method means that fertilisers are necessary. It has also led to huge amounts of deforestation — 2.5million acres of forest in Central America alone have been cleared to make way for new coffee plantations. In 2017 research by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) found that 37 out of the 50 countries in the world with the highest deforestation rates are also coffee producers.

Therefore, driving the growth of products like coffee could actually be a pretty dangerous game to play for the planet.

Reducing your social impact with Fairtrade

Social welfare and improved standards are what Fairtrade is known for. But how effective are their efforts at social and economic progress for the poorest communities on the planet?

In my eyes, Fairtrade is definitely a positive movement, and their efforts shouldn’t be downplayed in terms of social change and bringing issues such as poverty and food sustainability into the mainstream. Buying Fairtrade allows the consumer to have some level of power over big corporations, supply chains, and the social welfare of workers. By choosing to spend extra to buy Fairtrade products, consumers can send a clear message that ‘normal’ practices are not acceptable.

However, in terms of efficiency, there may be better uses of this extra consumer money. Specifically, if you want to reduce poverty or environmental sustainability, it is likely better to donate that money to highly effective charities. This is essentially what Oxford University philosopher Will MacAskill, has argued of Fairtrade — that the best way for an individual to make a difference is through targeted donations to highly effective charities in the cause area of your choice.

“Say that in a weekly shop you, as I do, buy a bunch of bananas, some coffee and some dark chocolate. Amongst these items alone the difference between the cheapest non-Fairtrade and Fairtrade brand collectively is about £2.

£2 donated to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative could deliver treatment of neglected tropical diseases of 4 people for a year.

£2 donated to the Against Malaria Foundation would pay for a malaria net, one of the most effective ways of preventing the spread of malaria.

Or why not donate that £2 directly to someone through Give Directly? That way you know that the right person received the the majority of your donation and you empower them to transform their own lives.”

If this argument makes sense to you, make sure you take a look at GiveWell and Giving What We Can to find out more about the most highly effective charities you can donate to.

Some of the other criticisms that are commonly raised against Fairtrade are:

  • There is little evidence of long-term progress for the farmers involved in Fairtrade schemes. This is evident in Fairtrade’s own Impact Report from 2015, where they find that Fairtrade workers are “ more satisfied with their standard of living, have a higher level of savings, and were more food secure” but that the “benefits were not yet sufficient for workers to be able to save or increase their assets.” [2]
  • Fairtrade’s model is essentially supporting Third World farmers with interjections of money from Western consumers. Some argue that farmers become reliant on the extra money, without the core problem of inequality across the world being addressed.
  • Fairtrade does not mean that the individual farmer gets a cut of the profits. Any additional profits go to the buyer or producer who sells the product on, and Fairtrade simply means that this buyer or producer has to pay the farmer a guaranteed price.
  • The majority of Fairtrade producers are in middle-income countries like Latin America, rather than in Sub-Saharan Africa where the biggest concentration of the poorest farmers is in reality.

These criticisms aren’t to say that you shouldn’t buy Fairtrade, but simply to aid transparency and understanding and to demonstrate that the commonly acceptable ways of tackling social inequality and climate change may not be the most effective ways to make change.

As you’ve seen, it is not always as simple as it seems to make change. To have real, lasting, positive impact in the world it’s necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of the methods that you use, so that you can understand where to direct your energy, efforts and/or money as an individual. That’s the point of this article. And if you still believe in the missions and impact of Fairtrade, and that the scheme is the best way to make change, then by all means you should go ahead and use your resources to support them.

If you liked this post, you might also like my posts on other common decisions which influence your impact: dried vs tinned beans, is carbon offsetting a good way to reduce your environmental impact, plastic bags vs tote bags, and which kind of milk to buy to reduce your impact.


[1] Quotation from Fairtrade’s report ‘Climate change and Fairtrade coffee’.

[2] Taken from Fairtrade’s 2015 Monitoring and Impact Report.

Ramblings on communication and our climate crisis🌱

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