Season 1, Episode 9: How Fair is Fair Trade?


You’re listening to Episode 9 of the Trafficking Dispatch, a biweekly podcast that briefs you on human trafficking issues in a brief amount of time. I’m your host, Victoria Erdel. This episode will explain the purpose of the fair trade organization and examine their effectiveness in combatting human trafficking.

The last episode focused on male victims of trafficking, whom I referred to as the “forgotten 45%.” This statistic was provided by the International Labor Organization, and before I continue with the topic of this episode, I wanted to clarify some other ILO statistics that were cited back in Episode 4. In that episode, I talked about how the ILO’s statistic of 40 million slaves worldwide, while not a perfect estimate, is more trustworthy than the US Department of State’s estimate of 27 million. The ILO’s statistic can be trusted more because they outlined their methodology and showed how their definition of human trafficking influenced this statistic. However, one crucial detail was left out that I did not remember to include until I met Martina Vandenberg last week.

Ms. Vandenberg is one of the most influential anti-trafficking lawyers in the United States. She is the founder and president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, based in Washington DC. She came to deliver a lecture at my university, and I had the privilege of joining her for breakfast. During this meal, she talked about how the ILO’s estimate of the number of human trafficking victims skyrocketed from 20.9 million to 40 million, not because 19.1 million people suddenly became slaves, but because the ILO’s definition of human trafficking expanded. Their new definition includes victims of child marriage, which added on an additional 15.1 million to their statistic. This detail is important, because without it, it seems as if all of our resources and efforts to combat human trafficking have been ineffective, as if the number of victims has only grown. This is not necessarily the truth. In this case, because the ILO’s definition grew, their statistic did too. Thankfully, Ms. Vandenberg’s lecture focused on five methods to fight human trafficking that are effective, and that are actually helping reduce the number of victims.

One well-known method of fighting human trafficking, though not mentioned in Ms. Vandenberg’s lecture, is fair trade. Certified fair trade products are those that were supposedly produced through ethical means: all parties involved in the production of a product were compensated fairly for their work, were not discriminated against, and worked in safe and eco-friendly work environments (“10 Principles of Fair Trade”). Additionally, the local producers are supposed to receive a majority of the profit, as opposed to larger corporations. In other words, no human trafficking allowed. These standards are ideal and just the kind of working conditions that anti-trafficking advocates would fight for. However, the intent and implementation of these standards do not always align. There is a very real chance that a product with a fair trade label may not have actually been produced through ethical means.

Let’s analyze the effectiveness of fair trade standards by the very organizations that created them. The World Fair Trade Organization, Fair Trade Federation, and Fairtrade International, some of the biggest fair trade organizations, claim that organizations must pass rigorous screenings and prove that they are an ethical operation before they are granted fair trade certification. Now, some of the organizations that are fair trade certified really are ethically sourced throughout their entire supply chain. For example, the organization that Emily from episode 2 interned for really is ethically operated. As someone who has interned at this same organization, I have also witnessed the production process firsthand and have seen that it is ethical. That organization is small enough that the CEO is actively involved in sourcing the materials for the jewelry her social enterprise makes. She can physically visit the material suppliers and works in the same office space as the women who create the jewelry. She can do this because her company is small enough that one person or a small team can supervise the entire production process. Therefore, it’s fairly easy for a fair trade organization to survey the production practices of her company.

This is not the case with some larger organizations trying to brand their products with the fair trade label. Larger businesses are harder to inspect and supervise. Coupled with the fact that some products undergo as many as eleven stages of production (Kevin Bales), there are plenty of steps along the way for unethical practices to slip through fair trade standards. For example, the Fair World Project found that some chocolate brands were permitted to use a fair trade label on their products because some of their ingredients, like cocoa butter, were determined to be ethically sourced. However, other ingredients were not inspected for their production practices. If the sugar and vanilla in that chocolate bar, for example, were not ethically produced, then it is possible that chocolate bars from those brands were created with at least some unfair production practices, despite the fair trade label. If a product is truly fair trade, it has to be 100% fair. However, these businesses know that very few consumers will actually see the dishonesty behind their feel-good fair trade label, so they take advantage of the fair trade certification to continue profiting off of unethical practices.

The sourcing of materials are only one aspect of fair trade certification. Businesses who are interested in being certified must also commit themselves to improving the working conditions and communities of their workers. Many consumers who actively purchase fair trade products do so because they are aware of this commitment and want to help. However, this standard is not always met. Researchers at the University of London found that a fair trade tea company used its funds to purchase modern toilets for their work site. This sounds like a great eco-friendly and sanitary improvement for working conditions. However, the researchers discovered that only senior managers were allowed to use these toilets. This means that the workers were being discriminated against in their workplace, which clearly breaks the nondiscrimination rule mentioned earlier. What’s more, a majority of the profits are supposed to go back to the tea farmers directly. In this case, however, we can see that the money really went to benefit the elites of the company. Despite their fair trade designation, this tea company doesn’t seem to be any more fair than companies that make no effort to stop trafficking in their supply chains.

If this method of resisting and preventing human trafficking has loopholes or sometimes makes working conditions worse, then what can we do about this? Thankfully, many of the fair trade organizations mentioned earlier have pages on their websites where you can report certified businesses that you believe are implementing unethical practices. This can prompt them to do a more thorough investigation. You can also contact them to suggest new rules or ideas. You can also petition your local government to pass laws based on fair trade, like California’s Supply Chains Transparency Act. There is a great texting service called Resistbot that allows you to send your concerns to your government officials through text. If you text “Resist” to 50409, you can text your opinions directly to your local officials, all the way up to the president. Finally, you can investigate specific brands. Many companies have a page on environmental and social responsibility. If you suspect a company is not living up to the standards on their website, or if you have evidence that they are doing something illegal or immoral, you can contact them directly, start a petition, boycott their products, and spread the word.

So, is fair trade really fair? That depends. Fair trade is an inherently good idea with good intentions, but it sadly falls short at times. Some corrupt companies hide their unethical practices in plain sight: behind a fair trade label. It’s up to us to look beyond these labels and investigate these brands more closely. It is only when we hold companies and fair trade organizations accountable that we will go beyond good intentions and trending morals and create ethical, effective, and permanent change.

This has been the Trafficking Dispatch with Victoria Erdel. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our season finale which will be released on December 24 at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at Thank you for tuning into this episode, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.

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