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A quick guide to fair trade and food

What does ‘fair trade’ mean in the food industry?

We take a look at the world’s leading fair trade label, alternative fair trade standards, and a selection of brands that sell fair trade food.

The label ‘fair trade’ is often used to show that a product was ethically made – that the farmers or workers behind it were treated and paid fairly.

Our Ethical Markets report showed that demand for fair trade products is on the rise. Sales of fair trade products increased by nearly 14% between from 2019 to 2020.

However, more and more brands have been making ‘fairly traded’ claims in recent years, and with no restrictions on who can make such claims, it can be hard to know how meaningful the term is.

What does fair trade mean in the food industry?

The food industry is notorious for its poor workers’ rights record. ‘Fair trade’ is used to indicate that workers and farmers are being respected in supply chains.

In many food sectors, from cocoa to tea, poverty is the key driver of workers’ rights violations, in part driven by the low prices paid for produce by major retailers around the world.

Fair trade products often tackle this by ensuring a minimum price is paid. This means that workers do not pay the cost if markets crash, and allows producers to move away from practices like use of child labour on farms.

Many brands use fair trade certifications to indicate that they have met key criteria. These kinds of labels are common in the cocoa, fruit, sugar, tea, coffee and rice industries – amongst others. While far from solving all the issues these sectors face, such labels often represent the best options we have as consumers.

Looking for a trusted fair trade label is a positive step you can take towards supporting workers’ and farmers’ rights with your weekly shop. They make brands more accountable and indicate that at least some of the additional amount you may pay for fair trade products is contributing to better conditions.  

Buying fair trade is a particularly important way to respect farmers who otherwise see such a tiny share of the final price. When we buy a £1 chocolate bar, cup of coffee or other food product, those who process the raw ingredients will receive much more of that price than the farmers that grew them. Usually this manufacturing is done overseas, meaning that ingredients are exported from poor countries so that profits can be captured elsewhere.

Unfortunately, however, fair trade is not a protected term, meaning that there is no set legal definition. (Compare this to, for example, organic, which can only be used in very strict circumstances.)

This means that the term has been open to greenwash, with a growing number of brands introducing their own worryingly weak ‘fair trade’ standards. Brands may also have one or two products labelled as fair trade while the rest are produced in really poor conditions.

Our shopping guides always highlight the best fair trade options, pointing you to brands and labels you can trust. By looking at issues like pay, trade policies and whether items are manufactured at source, Ethical Consumer can highlight those that are fair trade but don’t carry a label. Our Supply Chain Management rating also helps consumers to know which companies are ensuring basic workers’ rights across their whole supply chains (rather than just for a handful of products).

Fair trade food labels

Certifications can offer some confidence that social or environmental criteria are being met. Unfortunately, though, their requirements can vary greatly, meaning that it’s important to understand which you can trust.

Below we run through the strengths and weaknesses of the main fair trade labels for food.

Graphic with fairtrade food logos

Fairtrade International

Fairtrade International (FI) works with nearly two million farmers and workers in almost 80 countries.

FI certifies both smallholder farms (via their organisation into larger cooperatives, sometimes involving thousands of farmers) and larger estates. Its farmers produce everything from fresh flowers and nuts to herbal teas and cereals.

FI requires specific social, economic and environmental criteria to be met, and it sends inspectors to check that producers are compliant. Most significantly, it guarantees a Minimum Price as well as a small additional Premium, paid by its buyers, which helps to tackle the poverty that many food producers face.

Companies then source from these certified producers, paying the premium to the coop or estate as well as the Fairtrade Minimum Price or higher, which protects producers from market fluctuations.

While Fairtrade has historically been the gold standard of workers’ rights, it has failed to address deep-rooted issues in certain sectors. For example, Sabita Banerji, CEO of The International Roundtable for Sustainable Tea, says,

“much of Fairtrade-certified tea comes from plantations designed by 19th century British colonialists; they involve low-paid workers, mostly women, carrying out heavy labour under male supervisors – making them vulnerable to sexual abuse.”

In some of these sectors, small innovative brands may be going beyond Fairtrade. So while Ethical Consumer generally recommends looking out for the label, which is usually the best we have on offer, it’s also worth checking our guides to look for other alternatives (some of which are listed below).

Fairtrade International oversees a network of organisations in different countries that have licensed use of its standard and logo. The Fairtrade Foundation is the UK member of Fairtrade International.

If an item has been certified by FI, it will usually be referred to with a capital F (Fairtrade) or all in capitals (FAIRTRADE). You should also look out for its logo to make sure it is definitely FI certified.

Fairtrade International was formerly called the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation (FLO). Many FI products are certified by FLOCERT, so if a product is marked with this name it is also Fairtrade certified.

Spotting Fairtrade International logos

Fairtrade Mark

Fairtrade International’s ‘Fairtrade Mark’ is the most well-known of the Fairtrade logos.

If a product features this original Fairtrade Mark without any extra arrows, words, or different colours then this means that all of its contents are certified by Fairtrade International. All of the ingredients or materials in the product are fully traceable – kept separate from non-certified products from field to shelf.

There are however variations on this Fairtrade logo, which indicates that not everything in the product is certified – just some elements of it are.

Fairtrade Mark with an arrow

If you see the Fairtrade Mark with an arrow next to it, it means that all of the materials that can be sourced under Fairtrade conditions were done so (though it may contain some materials that Fairtrade International does not certify).

To have the Fairtrade Mark with an arrow the item must have at least 20% certified Fairtrade content.

Fairtrade Sourced Ingredient (FSI) Mark

If you spot the same logo but in blue, green and white – instead of black –, it means that an ingredient has been sourced Fairtrade rather than the whole product. Next to the logo it says which ingredients are sourced Fairtrade.

Fair for Life

Fair for Life was launched in Switzerland in 2006. Unlike Fairtrade International, it certifies the whole company group rather than single brands, and has been praised for its comprehensive social and environmental requirements.

It also certifies producers and manufacturers in developed countries, which Fairtrade does not. And it is very transparent, publishing a summary of all of its assessments on its website.

However, unlike FI it doesn’t have fixed prices. Instead, a premium and minimum price are negotiated between buyer and seller. It says that the premium is typically 10% on top of the market price.

World Fair Trade Organization

Fairtrade International only provides certification for certain ingredients (such as bananas and cocoa), meaning that only certain products can get the certification.

Some brands have found their own solutions to this, by setting their own standards. Unfortunately these can’t always be trusted (as discussed below).

The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) says that it uses “peer-reviews and independent audits” to verify brands claiming to be fair trade. It checks whether their practices comply with the 10 Fair Trade Principles and the International Labour Organisation's conventions – basic workers’ right criteria.

Some of these criteria are mandatory in order for companies to join the WFTO. Others are used to indicate ‘continuous improvement’ by the company over time – necessary to stay with the group. Companies that join can use the "Guaranteed Fair Trade" mark.

Own-brand labels

In recent years, there has been a rise in companies creating their own fair trade standards instead of Fairtrade International’s certification.

Sainsbury’s used to be the world’s largest retailer of Fairtrade certified products until 2017, when it decided to switch many of its products to its own ‘Fairly Traded’ scheme. Starbucks has its own, in-house coffee label, called C.A.F.E. Practices (Coffee And Farmer Equity Practices). Mondelēz (Cadbury) runs its own ‘Cocoa Life’, Nestlé runs ‘Cocoa Plan’, Hotel Chocolat runs ‘Engaged Ethics’, Mars runs ‘Cocoa for Generations’, and Lindt & Sprüngli run the ‘Farming Program’.

Fairtrade International highlighted the key issue with own-brand labels:

“Fairtrade is a fully independent and transparent system supported by the third party organisation” while “Sainsbury’s Sustainability Standards are established by Sainsbury’s, which means that Sainsbury’s will in future carry responsibility for their implementation, review and performance”.

In short, the brand itself becomes responsible for deciding what ‘fair trade’ means, whether it should be more aligned with workers’ rights or its corporate interests, and how it should be enforced.

Own-brand schemes will likely have a less independent third-party enforcement mechanism than established certifying bodies.

Coffee beans and loose tea leaves

Is organic food fair trade?

While some organic certifications may include criteria to protect workers, they are not equivalent to fair trade, and their focus is mainly environmental.

The Soil Association, the UK’s leading organic certification, includes brief clauses on involuntary and child labour. However, it doesn’t include any criteria for a price premium, a key benefit of the Fairtrade approach.

Fairtrade certification and explicit supply chain policies on the company website are much more likely to guarantee that workers’ rights are respected than most organic or other types of certification.

Products can be both Fairtrade and organic, so look out for this if you want to find the best of the bunch when it comes to social and environmental criteria.

Where to buy fair trade food?

We highlight fair trade food companies in all our guides – whether they are certified with the Fairtrade logo or demonstrating their own truly robust fair trade approach. We've included more information about some of the companies below for some of the main fair trade food items.

Fair trade brands

Chocolat Madagascar, like Pacari and Fairafric, produces ‘tree to bar’ at source, meaning that not only is the chocolate itself made in Madagascar, the bar itself is produced there. The company refers to this approach as ‘Raisetrade’, because it contributes to the income of the country and allows farmers to escape poverty. 

The company told Ethical Consumer that it pays two to three times the Fairtrade minimum price to purchase a specific type of cacao. Because this is turned into bars in-country, those in Madagascar receive 100% of the final product value if the product is bought locally, and around 25% when it’s exported (which it says is around 500% more value than when raw cacao is exported to a developed country).

Divine has been selling Fairtrade chocolate for over 20 years. Established through a collaboration between the Ghanaian Kuapa Kokoo cocoa farmers co-op and a fair trade company called Twin Trading in the mid-1990s, it launched its first bar in 2002 with the support of Christian Aid, The Body Shop and Comic Relief.

Kuapa Kokoo means ‘good cocoa farmer’. It is a syndicate with about 100,000 members. According to our 2021 chocolate guide, its members produce about 5% of Ghanaian cocoa.

Divine has now been partly sold, and has been majority owned by German chocolate manufacturer Ludwig Weinrich since 2020. Kuapa Kokoo owns 20% of Divine, although this has fallen from 45% in recent years.

Divine points out that Kuapa still receives a share of dividends, and still has two representatives on the Divine board. It says that partially owning a chocolate company gives Kuapa farmers a voice in the cocoa industry and a ‘seat at the table’. Therefore, we still think that it is a company worth supporting.

Fairafric is a German company that was founded by its CEO Hendrik Reimers after he had been backpacking in Africa.

He wasn’t impressed by certification, saying that “a couple of percent more income on almost nothing is still almost nothing.” Instead, he was convinced that the way out of poverty was making finished products locally, and decided to make chocolate ‘bean to bar’ in Ghana.

The company buys cocoa from farmers with whom it has long-term personal relationships and pays high prices. It claims that through its approach, those in Ghana receive incomes equivalent to more than $17,900 per tonne of cocoa produced, compared to around $2,900 for other forms of fair trade.

Parari has the World Fair Trade Organisation mark. It trades directly with farmers in Ecuador, cutting out middlemen and ensuring that the producers see more of the final price. In fact, Pacari says that it pays 60% more than the average local price for its cocoa.

Most significantly, Pacari is a ‘tree to bar’ producer, meaning that everything from growing to packaging takes place in Ecuador.

Manufacturers of chocolate receive a far bigger proportion from the price of a chocolate bar than growers. In the past, the norm has been for companies to export raw cocoa from poor countries like Ecuador and manufacture the actual bar elsewhere – essentially meaning that the wealth from the chocolate is also exported. Pacari and a number of other brands in this industry are reversing this trend.

Pacari claims, “When chocolate is produced from ‘Tree to Bar’ this allows over 50% of the wealth to stay in the country of origin”, compared to just 7% for sustainable companies that export the raw product to produce in the UK.

Bird & Wild sells Fairtrade certified coffee. Its coffee is also ‘Bird Friendly’ meaning that producers use native shade trees throughout their plantations. These provide a suitable migratory habitat for birds, while allowing farms to continue being productive.

It also donates 6% of sales to RSPB.

Read more about bird friendly approaches in our coffee guide.

Cafédirect was the UK’s first Fairtrade hot drinks brand. It began in response to the 1989 global collapse in coffee prices and, today, invests 50% of its profits directly back into Producers Direct, a UK charity that works directly with growers around the world.

As a 100% Fairtrade company, it pays the Fairtrade minimum purchase price, plus an additional Fairtrade Premium.

Postcard Teas sells loose leaf tea from small producers who farm less than 15 acres. It does this because on farms of that size, a larger proportion of the price goes directly to the people who produced the tea. On larger farms, the people who are most likely to benefit are the owners rather than the workers.

The website gives the names of the farm on which the tea was produced, or the cooperative from which it was bought, and average size of the grower farms.

Revolver Coop sells a range of Fairtrade certified teas, and says that it certifies all products that come from countries where the label operates.

Revolver is a registered cooperative. Growers like the CoopeTarrazu in Costa Rica, which represents 4500 farmer grower members, are part of the Revolver cooperative too.


Kilombero rice is produced by the KASFA, the Kaporo Smallholder Farmer Association in Malawi. KASFA began as a small group of farmers who all grew Kilombero rice in the Karonga region in the North. Now, the association has over 8,000 members.

In the UK, the rice is sold by Just Trading Scotland which is a not-for-profit Fairtrade food importer, trying to create markets for small-scale producers in Asia and Africa. JTS has also funded projects with KASFA relating to seed multiplication, education, and access to plough ploughs, wells, and irrigation.


Zaytoun sells fairly traded olive oil, grains, nuts and other products to support the resilience and livelihoods of Palestinian farmers under occupation. This not-for-profit brand was founded in 2004 after Heather Masoud and Cathi Pawson visited Palestine. Accompanying Palestinian farmers harvesting their crops and witnessing the Israeli occupation first hand, they sought to transform their anger at injustice into action, and Zaytoun was born soon after.

A fair trade company and member of the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO), Zaytoun also supports a model of agriculture that is naturally organic, sustainable and “rooted in time and tradition”.


Coop Food is the champion of Fairtrade food amongst the mainstream supermarkets. It uses Fairtrade cocoa, not only for its chocolate, but also in all its baked goods. All the bagged sugar on its shelves is also Fairtrade, along with its own-brand coffee, tea, and bananas are all Fairtrade, and some of its wine and flowers.