Fair Trade environmental standards

by JulieCraves on February 8, 2009

It’s hard to blame consumers for being confused by the number of eco-labels on products these days. “Fair Trade” certified coffee is probably the most familiar to many consumers. Fair Trade (generically and as trademarked by various organizations) is primarily concerned with alleviating poverty through greater equity in international trade. Fair Trade is governed in most of the world by the Fairtrade International (FLO).  In the U.S., Fairtrade America is their member organization. The former member, Fair Trade USA, which resigned from the international system in early 2012 and is now a separate entity.

Many people assume, however, that Fairtrade/Fair Trade certification standards also include robust environmental standards. This assumption is promoted by some organizations themselves.

For example, At one time, the Fair Trade USA environmental benefits web page has stated that “over 80% of the Fair Trade certified coffee in the U.S. is also shade-grown.” Currently, the site says “most” is shade-grown. According to the most recent (2006) statistics I could find, only about 40% of the Fair Trade coffee imported into the U.S.  is also certified by Rainforest Alliance and/or Smithsonian Bird-Friendly [1].  More recently, Fairtrade International’s benefits report (found on their Facts and Figures page), notes 51% of Fairtrade certified producers (of ANY product, not just coffee) also hold organic certification, and 10% have Rainforest Alliance certification. Since neither of those certifications guarantees shade themselves, I am not sure if either organization can claim that the majority of their certified coffee is also shade-grown.

In fact, Fair Trade certification has no criteria related to growing coffee under shade, it does not require organic certification, it contains no guidelines for management of native or non-native species, it does not require any inventory of wildlife or prohibit hunting or trafficking in animals. These are all included in the criteria for shade certification by Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (Bird-Friendly) and/or Rainforest Alliance.

Let’s take a look at the Fairtrade/Fair Trade environmental standards.

Fairtrade International is the association of producer networks and national labeling initiatives, including Fairtrade America, that develops and reviews the Fairtrade standards. There are two sets of standards: overarching generic standards, and standards specific to each type of product. Let’s look at the standards which specifically address preserving and protecting the environment.

Here is a summary of the generic producer standards for small producers (which apply to coffee farmers) that address preserving and protecting the environment:

  • No plant material can be collected from protected areas or propagated illegally.
  • Harvesting of wild products from natural areas must be done sustainably and human impact minimized.
  • Co-ops should have environmental and land use plans and maintain records pertaining to land, water, and chemical use.
  • Co-ops must recognize conservation and buffer areas and not cultivate within them or apply agrochemicals.
  • Virgin forest can’t be cultivated, unless an exception is granted.
  • In areas of low biodiversity or similar degraded areas, co-op members should plant trees or “encourage” regeneration of native flora.
  • Co-ops should promote farm diversity, including reforestation or shade implementation, “as is practical” and “progress should be made over time.”
  • No use of chemicals on a prohibited list.
  • Agrochemicals must be labeled, stored, and used as directed.
  • Use of permitted herbicides must be justified.
  • Producers are expected to seek less toxic alternatives to and try to reduce volumes of agrochemicals to the extent possible.
  • Waste should be reduced, reused, recycled and composted in an appropriate manner.
  • Soil erosion should be managed, soil fertility should be maintained.
  • Water should be managed efficiently and to avoid contamination and depletion of resources.
  • Genetically modified organisms are prohibited.

These are indeed pretty generic. There are few specific criteria and virtually no quantifiable or measurable rules. I expected the product standard for coffee to have more precise restrictions or environmental standards relating to birds and wildlife. Here’s what the 2009 document said:

“There are no additional environmental standards specific to coffee producers.”

Fairtrade International standards can be downloaded from this page.

Fair Trade USA environmental standards are substantially similar and there are no separate documents or guidelines for coffee. Their standards can be downloaded from this page.

There are plenty of worthwhile things about these certifications. The environmental guidelines, however general, are better than none at all and in many cases undoubtedly result in better environmental conditions. I strongly believe that reducing poverty also helps prevent environmental exploitation, and Fair Trade has improved the lives of thousands of farmers. Because Fair Trade coffee is grown by small producers, it is often grown in a sustainable manner.

But just to clarify: Fairtrade/Fair Trade certification alone does not automatically mean or guarantee that rigorous environmental standards were followed, or that the coffee was grown under shade. For that you’ll have to look for an additional seal or seals, or have detailed information about the specific origin to assess growing conditions.

[1] Giovannucci, D., Liu, P. and A. Byers. 2008. Adding value: certified coffee trade in North America. In Pascal Liu (ed.). Value-adding Standards in the North American Food Market – Trade Opportunities in Certified Products for Developing Countries. FAO, Rome. Available online (PDF).

Revised on November 24, 2020

Posted in Background information,Fair and Direct Trade

Debbie February 9, 2009 at 1:07 pm

Thanks for this article. Coffee in particular has so many eco-friendly variables that sometimes you have to pick and choose which are most important to you. If your local store doesn't have the variety you want, there are plenty of places to look on the Web.


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