Fair for Life

How does Fair for Life stack up ethically? We look at this new certification scheme

If you're an eagle-eyed ethical shopper then you may have noticed a new product label quietly appearing on a range of products in shops around the UK.

Fair for Life (FFL) is a fair trade label operated independently from the mainstream Fairtrade Labelling Organisation (FLO), the global fair trade governing body which overseas the more familiar Fairtrade Foundation.

The aim of the new scheme, like all fair trade schemes, is to improve the lives of small-scale producers around the world by giving them a leg-up in the cut-throat global marketplace.

So how does Fair for Life stack up ethically?

The first clue to look for when judging the ethical credentials of any product label is to check out who owns it: if it's owned and run by big business then you know pretty well instantly that chances are it's going to be an ethical turkey. (Hello Cadbury's recently launched Cocoa Life, we're talking about you.)

In the case of Fair for Life however, it was launched in Switzerland in 2006 by the Bio-Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes eco-friendly products, and the Institute for Market Ecology, which certifies a wide range of organic, sustainable and socially-responsible consumer goods.

Then significantly in 2014 Fair for Life was bought by Ecocert, the respected global French-based organic certification organisation whose ethical credentials aren't in any doubt.

So far, so good.

But why then was Fair for Life launched?

“At the time, small, dedicated companies were telling us that existing fair trade schemes were limited to certain products and models of fair trade,” explains Louisa Castro from Fair for Life.

Whilst mainstream fair trade focused on popular consumer items such as bananas and coffee, Fair for Life was designed to help provide companies with more specialist fair trade products such as herbal teas and essential oils. This is done by using one standard that covers all products rather than a different standard for individual products.

Image: bananas ethical guide supermarket

Plus, FLO's model of fair trade was largely geared towards small-scale producers in Africa, southern Asia and South America. Fair for Life on the other hand wanted to work globally including countries in eastern Europe.

Covering everything from fruit to fashion and crafts to cosmetics, there are now over 3,000 Fair for Life certified products on shop shelves right across the world, including the US, France, Germany and increasingly here in the UK.

So to the nitty-gritty: how does Fair for Life certification actually work?

Like conventional fair trade, Fair for Life has an extensive list of different social and environmental criteria that must be met before a product can be certified. 

These include the key issues of safe and decent working conditions and pay, the right to freedom of association and the banning of forced labour and child labour.

Also like conventional fair trade, Fair for Life also builds in environmental standards:

“If the product isn't already certified as being organic, then clear ecological targets must be set in order to reduce impacts on both the environment and human health,” says Louisa, adding that: “progress towards more organic production practices is encouraged.”

Image: Tea picker Malawi fair trade
Tea Picker, credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith

Fair for Life gains additional ethical credibility points by extending certification right through the entire supply chain of a product from pickers out in the field to packers in the warehouse.

Reassuringly Fair for Life rules dictate that a hefty 80 per cent of a product's supply chain must be certified before companies can put the Fair for Life label on the front of their product's packaging. 

Plus crucially, just like regular fair trade and unlike other product label schemes such as Rainforest Alliance, Fair for Life operates a minimum pricing system which includes a fair trade premium.

“We're able to distribute the fair trade premium to the 760 workers who work on our tea tree farm in Kenya,” says Miquel Boix Tomas from Earth Oil Plantation, one of the first Fair for Life certified companies in the UK.

“The farmer committee then decides how to use the premium,” says Miquel, whose company supplies specialist vegetable oils to the cosmetic and food industry.

“The premium has been used to provide scholarships for the workers' children, as education isn't free in Kenya, so this makes a big difference.”

Image: Neal's Yard Organic products

The good news is that Fair for Life gets a big thumbs up from the UK companies who've already signed up to the scheme:

"I’m a big fan of the Fair for Life scheme," says Louise Green from Neal's Yard Remedies, one of Ethical Consumer's Best Buy Label companies, which is also certified by the Fairtrade Foundation.

"It’s very robust and covers far more products in our supply chain, as it's not limited to specific countries or ingredients."

But what about large multinationals, would they ever pass the Fair for Life eligibility test?

"We currently don't have any certified multinationals on our programme," states Louisa Castro, adding that, "companies have applied in the past but we turned them down."

Louisa then goes on to outline how Fair for Life is very aware of fairwashing, the fairtrade equivalent of green washing where companies acquire an environmental product label to try and improve their image.

"We have a stringent fairwashing policy in place and if a company has been involved in previous scandals then we carefully consider whether we really can accept them," says Louisa.

"We simply don't just rubber stamp an application."

Image: Pukka Teas fair for life

However an interesting case has recently arisen as Pukka Herbs, one of the first companies to sign up to Fair for Life, was bought by the massive multinational Unilever last year.

The question now is will Pukka be able to keep its Fair for Life accreditation?

"If a company which has the label then becomes part of a bigger company then we have to assess the whole group and not just the smaller company," explains Louisa, "we'll be reassessing Pukka in the autumn so we'll have to wait and see."

So given that Fair for Life looks like it's genuinely the real ethical deal, is it necessarily better than mainstream Fairtrade?

"I'm never going to say one scheme is better than another as the Fairtrade Foundation and Fair for Life are equally good projects," concludes Lousie Green.

"Both schemes offer different things and what they are about is supporting producers who need that extra premium and help."

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