What’s behind sustainable labels? (2/3)

Fair trade labels
Although it was my initial aim to cover a broad range of labels in this blog post, I have changed my focus half-way through my challenge. Instead of reviewing organic, ethical and vegan labels at once, I will only write about and compare ethical trade labels in this blog post. During my search for information on various labels, I realized that the background of the certification procedures and the structure and functioning of the labeling organization are too interesting to be left out. This deeper focus, however, only allowed me to look at two main labels: the Ethical Tea Partnership label (I love tea!) and the Fairtrade mark (it is probably most widely known).

Ethical Tea Partnership
The Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) is a not-for-profit organization with the overall aim of making the tea industry more sustainable by improving the lives of tea workers, farmers and their environment. The organization is constituted by a number of private companies and retailers active in the tea industry partnering with NGOs and governments. Its funding thus comes both from the public and private sector. Its label can be found on the tea products of the organizations members.

Initial market situation
Founded in 1997, the organization calls its own approach ‘ground-breaking’ as there was little experience of environmental and social standards in the industry and large-scale certification of tea did not yet exist. While raising low standards in the sector is a noble goal, it is worth considering that the private-sector founding members of ETP were also seeking business opportunities through the sustainability-certification of their tea products.


As ETP member PLUCK Teas elaborates, tea producers need to meet international social, labour and environmental standards regarding health and safety, agro-chemical and environmental management and fair and equal treatment of workers to become members of ETP. According to ETP itself, the organization has moved away from conducting audits to raise standards and from a focus on certification. These
days, it concentrates on and advertises its grassroots projects in the major tea-exporting countries, such as energy-efficiencies schemes in tea factories in Kenya or
climate change adaptation in Malawi (to see more click here).

I have mainly found good critics of the ETP which is also, but not only, due to its partnerships with UNICEF and Oxfam, two well-established development organisations. The membership (and auditing procedure) is free of charge for tea producers which means that certification costs pose no additional obstacle for smaller producers. I will elaborate on a common criticism concerning auditing practices further below.

My main doubt about this non-profit is that it is mainly comprised of private actors in the tea industry. Whereas I don’t contest that ETP’s programmes can improve the livelihood of farmers and communities in African and South-Asian countries, there are for-profit interests at work which are likely to decided which projects are implemented and which aren’t. After all, with global teaconsumption rising, it is in companies’ interest to remain competitive by investing in ecological durability and social matters at their production sites.


The most well-known label when it comes to ethical trade might be the Fairtrade label. If sugar, coffee, chocolate or bananas, everyone has seen Fairtrade products before - not least because our university is a “Fairtrade University” and thus the cafés on campus sell e.g. Fairtrade-certified coffee. Fairtrade is an international certification and labeling system governed by Fairtrade International and co-owned by farmers and workers. Fairtrade International is divided in national sections; its board includes representatives of the producer networks, the national sections and independent board members.

Initial market situation
According to the World Fair Trade Organization, the Fair Trade movement*, which Fairtrade is considered a part of, originated in the 1940s and 1950s to raise awareness on trade injustices and power imbalances in the traditional trade structure. After the various Fair Trade organizations worldwide had been networking for decades, Fairtrade International was founded in 1997. Its labeling is believed to have helped Fair Trade products enter mainstream business.

The Fairtrade standards which must be met by producers and traders to acquire certification comprise economic, environmental and social criteria. In short, there is a minimum price payed to producers and a fixed premium for farmers and workers. Those that grow their products organically receive higher minimum prices. The social criteria include, among others, non-discriminatory employment policies and the prohibition of forced labour and child labour. Fairtrade itself calls these standards the
‘backbone’ of its operation and in my opinion, they are worth checking out (find out more about the standards here). Other certifying organisations also use the Fairtrade standards as benchmark.

The Fairtrade mark and its standards enjoy a good reputation, especially because of their minimum prices which are meant to make producers less vulnerable to the fluctuating global market price. Yet, its system has been criticized as inefficient throughout the years. For example, there have been cases where the wages of workers on plantations selling Fairtrade-certified products were below others (non-Fairtrade) in the region (read more here). Also, researchers have criticized that the costs of certification (which are payed continuously by the producers!) may well outweigh the economic benefits of higher prices for products (this source is in German).

What I have heard from people working in cooperation with Fairtrade and even at national Fairtrade sections, goes together with the impression I have had through various encounters with the label: Fairtrade (and this goes for others, too) is no panacea for the inequalities and exploitative structures caused by global free trade. However, in many cases it may be the lesser evil, guaranteeing minimum
standards above the local industry average.

A common problem
As was brought to my attention through a Swiss documentary (also in German), the audit process which is meant to determine whether production standards are adhered to or not has one major disadvantage: farmers and plantation owners are informed about when the audits happen in advance.

This allows them to fake a perfect picture on the day of the audit e.g. by forbidding children to attend to work that day. The documentary reveals this for cocoa producers which are UTZ certified** and shows how local certification authorities admit to this practice. In the past, this concealment problem was also observed in audits for ETP and Fairtrade (see e.g. here).

Next blog post(s)
I enjoyed researching and learning about these different models of labeling organizations! I hope to be able to write and publish more posts about organic and vegan labels in the future in order to shed more light on the jungle of eco-labels, as I promised in my first blog post.

Tatjana Blum (March 2020)

Read the third part of the challenge here (Organic labels and Ecolabels).

Recommended also: Relish responsibility and Food.

*Note the difference between Fair Trade (the global movement) and Fairtrade (the labeling organization/system).
**Similar to Fairtrade, UTZ is a certification programm for sustainable farming. It is focused on coffee, tea, cocoa and hazelnuts. Recently, the organization merged with the Rainforest Alliance, an international non-profit organization which equally pursues goals of social and ecological sustainability.

Picture 1 (ETP logo): https://bestcoffeeandtea.ch/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/logo-ethical-tea- partnership.jpg
Picture 2 (Fairtrade logo): https://www.worldwidechocolate.com/wp-
Picture 3 (UTZ logo): https://www.comunicaffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/UTZ-New-