Fairtrade saves lives – and you can help just by shopping wisely

Find out more about what Fairtrade means, why it matters and how you can support Fairtrade Fortnight

lady in cotton field by white and green
(Image credit: White & Green)

We've all glanced at and maybe even shopped for Fairtrade buys in the supermarket and beyond, but have you ever really thought about what's behind the labelling, how you could be doing good by buying Fairtrade products, and what the organisation actually does? 

With Fairtrade Fortnight running right now (25 February to 10 March), we thought it a good time, with the help of eco-friendly and Fairtrade homeware brand White & Green, to look into it in some depth. And it's really made us think hard about what we're putting in our shopping baskets. Read on, and it might affect you similarly.

Why should we be concerned about buying Fairtrade?

In 2019 there are approximately 1.1 billion people working in the agricultural sector worldwide, but nearly half are drastically underpaid, exploited, and under serious health threats due to their working conditions. The unfortunate reality is that many of these workers are employed to produce the clothing and homeware items that many of us own and love, with non-organic cotton being a particularly problematic material.

Fairtrade Fortnight encourages consumers to think carefully about their choices and to consider which brands may or may not be relying on the labour of underpaid and exploited human beings. Buying Fairtrade is the easiest way to make a big difference to the lives of those who grow the things we depend on.

How does non-Fairtrade farming affect farmers?

Farmers who aren't covered by Fairtrade frameworks can be left at the bottom of the financial pyramid, living off lower than the minimum subsistence level. For example, within the cotton sector in India, hired workers receive on average €1.8/day, which is only 41 per cent of the living wage. 

This, combined with farmers' dependency on genetically modified (GMO) seeds, fertilisers and insecticides to yield their quotas, which in turn leads to devastating cycles of financial dependency, has been linked to a high rate of cotton farmer suicides, with families and individuals left in inescapable debt traps. In India alone, 270,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995.

In addition to its devastating effects on the lives of farmers, non-Fairtrade farming also tends to impact the lives of a farmer's family, with many families forced to pull their children from school to work on farms and in factories as a direct result of financial struggles.

According to the International Labour Organizations, 218 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 are in employment. Among them, 152 million are victims of child labour and almost half of them (73 million) work in very hazardous conditions. 

Child labour is most prevalent within the farming industry, accounting for 71 per cent of all child labour. 

What's the difference between farming organic and non-organic cotton?

With many farmers facing severe pressure to reach a certain crop yield, many turn to hazardous pesticides in order to maximise yield potential.

This results in dangerous chemicals seeping into delicate eco-systems, often eroding soil and making it unusable in the future. Natural habitats are often destroyed in an effort to create more land to keep up with the high demand of produce – the expansion of palm oil plantations in Indonesia which is destroying the natural wildlife and threatening the Orangutan population, being a prime example.

In addition to devastating natural environments, these pesticides also have horrific physical impacts on those farming the cotton plantations, causing symptoms which range from chest pain, nausea and vomiting to pesticide poisoning.

How does buying Fairtrade help workers?

Fairtrade businesses help to combat the effects of unfair trade such as poverty, child labour, hazardous work, environmental damage and gender inequality. 

To enable this the Fairtrade Foundation looks to connect consumers and the workers and farmers who grow and maintain the produce we depend on every day, improve trading conditions and empower these workers to take more control in their lives to break the cycle of poverty. 

This is achieved by:

  • Setting social, economic and environmental standards for both companies and workers to comply with.
  • Certifying products and ingredients, ensuring that these standards are met by all involved.
  • Guaranteeing safe labour practices and fair wages for workers.
  • Forbidding child labour throughout any point of the supply chain.
  • Funding community projects that better societies and offer more to those living in them.
  • Only investing in companies and corporations that respect and treat their workers well.
  • Prohibiting the use of hazardous pesticides under Fairtrade standards, which means a safer environment for workers and less environmental damage.
  • Striving to power women by standing up for their rights and supporting equal pay and equal treatments. 

How can we recognise Fairtrade products?

You can recognise Fairtrade products by looking out for the Fairtrade symbol, which guarantees human and environmental rights of the highest standards along the entire supply chain.

Emily Shaw

Emily first (temporarily) joined the Real Homes team while interning on her summer break from university. After graduating, she worked on several publications before joining Real Homes as Staff Writer full time in mid-2018. She left the brand in 2020 to pursue another career, but still loves a second-hand bargain and sourcing unique finds to make her rented flat reflect her personality.