If you walk into any hipster coffee shop today, you are likely to see the shop proudly promoting their coffee as “Fair Trade Certified”. Recently, ethical consumerism in general, and Fair Trade in particular, have become principal causes for many social justice warriors.
The idea behind Fair Trade is that buyers in rich nations pay slightly higher prices for goods to ensure that producers from developing nations can earn a living wage. Less-wealthy producers in the world’s poorer nations are able to improve their standard of living, westerners get high quality products with the bonus of a clear conscience, and wealth becomes more evenly distributed. Everyone wins, right?
Well, maybe not women.
While promoting gender equality is an expressly stated purpose of the Fair Trade movement, some scholars have contested that the results of Fair Trade for women have been mixed.
The effect of Fair Trade on women is a surprisingly difficult topic to research. Very few empirical studies have been conducted; the data that are available are largely anecdotal.
Despite limitations in the data, here is what we can say about fair trade and women.
WHAT IS FAIR TRADE?
First, it is important to understand Fair Trade and all it entails. It is a movement that challenges the traditional neoliberal model of trade that relies on natural market forces of supply and demand to determine prices. Instead, Fair Trade promotes an egalitarian model of trade that distributes wealth more evenly along the supply chain by setting minimum prices for goods.
From this ideological movement have sprung several international organizations that define and regulate Fair Trade industries, mainly in the agricultural and artisanal sectors. These organizations set industry standards that a producer must meet in order to be “Fair Trade Certified”. International Fair Trade organizations incentivize producers to meet their standards by granting premiums to producers that carry the Fair Trade mark which can then be used for community development efforts.
WHAT DOES FAIR TRADE DO FOR WOMEN?
The 2009 Charter of Fair Trade Principles specifically indicates that eliminating sexual inequality is a fundamental concern of the Fair Trade movement. The charter states that Fair Trade seeks to “improv[e] the relative position of women,” and stipulates that women must receive equal pay for equal work. Fair Trade farms are also required to provide health care for male and female workers alike, and ensure a harassment-free workspace.
Undoubtedly, if these industry standards are met, women working on Fair Trade farms do much better than women who work on farms that are not Fair Trade certified. However, if gender equality is truly the goal of Fair Trade, mandating equal pay for women is only half the solution.
Particularly in cash crop industries (industries that mass-produce crops for export, such as coffee, cocoa, and bananas) the main barriers to achieving gender equality are laws, practices, and social norms that prohibit women from owning land and cultivating cash crops.
In most parts of the developing world, women face extreme discrimination in land ownership practices. Women either legally or culturally cannot own land, as shown in the WomanStats map below.
Even if a woman working on a coffee plantation is paid equal to another male worker, she will still make significantly less than the man who owns the plantation. Thus, even in a Fair Trade context, the gender pay gap will not change in societies where land ownership is not evenly distributed between men and women.
In one of the few academic studies about the effects of Fair Trade on women, researchers from the Lancashire Business School concluded, “research suggests that there is no challenge to gender segmentation, and that female stereotypes may have been reinforced…[t]he findings, such as they are, suggest that the impact of Fair Trade is dependent on existing local arrangements such as the sexual division of labour, patriarchal attitudes and the ability of women to own and control the means of production.”
The critiques of Fair Trade’s impact on gender relations outlined in this article are not intended to dismiss the gains Fair Trade has made in addressing global inequality. Indeed, it has done much good to combat poverty and distribute resources more equitably throughout the world.
However, I propose that if Fair Trade is fundamentally concerned with addressing gender imbalances, as it claims to be, then Fair Trade organizations need to do more to directly attack the root causes of gender inequality in agriculture.
Fair Trade Organizations could more actively advocate for women’s legal right to own land, or distribute premiums to female farmers to buy their own Fair Trade farms.
Addressing root causes of gender inequality is never simple. However, because of the international credibility and success of Fair Trade organizations, they have the opportunity to make a lasting difference for the status of women. I hope they take it.
Uuskyla, Nema Vinkeloe. 2017. “A Fair Trade for Gender?: A case study of the gendered inplications of Fairtrade certified cocoa production in Cote d’Ivoire.” University of Gothenburg. https://economics.handels.gu.se/digitalAssets/1660/1660609_8.-nema-vinkeloe-ma-thesis-in-global.pdf.
Woman sowing: https://ndlink.org/category/ndnews/page/41/
 “What is Fairtrade?” https://www.fairtrade.net/about-fairtrade/what-is-fairtrade.html.
 “A Charter of Fair Trade Principles.” 2009. P. 9 World Fair Trade Organization and Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International. http://fairtrade-advocacy.org/images/Charter_of_Fair_Trade_principles_EN_v1.2.pdf.
 Carroll, Alexandra. (2016). “Fairher: Women’s Empowerment and Fair Trade.” Fair Trade Campaigns. https://fairtradecampaigns.org/2016/04/fairher-womens-empowerment-and-fair-trade/.