Google “fair trade products” and you’ll be offered hundreds of websites selling everything from food and wine, to coffee and tea, to apparel, jewellery and cotton. So the question arises: how do you tell if you’re really buying fair trade or not?

Fair trade or not fair trade?

The answer seems simple enough: the business should belong to a fair trade organization and be able to display a fair trade symbol of that organization on their products and/or website. Okay, but you there are a plethora of such organizations and logos. Confusing? A little. It’s a bit like searching for a needle in a haystack except there are hundreds of needles, and you don’t know if one will do what you want.

How do you even know what a claim of “fair trade” means? Does it for example just apply to the raw materials used in a product (the cotton in clothing), or every step of the process (the entire clothing manufacturing process)? Contrasting with organic food production which has legally enforceable international standards, fair trade production does not.

So what should you look for next time you’re shopping online or in a store? The following’s a brief rundown of the most important fair trade certifiers and organizations and what their logo means to you, the consumer.

FLO, the international Fair Trade Labelling Organization

To myself personally (big coffee drinker; someone who enjoys hanging out in cafes drinking mocaccino while writing articles about topics such as fair trade) this is the most instantly recognizable. Recognition doesn’t imply comprehension. I naively thought it was solely for coffee. Tea perhaps. It’s not. FLO is an international umbrella organization made up of different labelling initiatives from 21 countries and covers a wide range of products including coffee, coco, tea, spices, fruit, and rice and even sports balls!

The distinctive blue and green logo was created in 2002 to replace a variety of different logos from member organizations. It’s the coffee connection which has probably made it the most recognized global fair trade standards brand, but what does it mean?

Essentially FLO develops internationally recognized fair trade standards. FLOCERT (their independent certifier) then check to make sure these standards are being met and that producers are treated and paid fairly. These standards apply not only to producers but also to exporters, importers and licensees.

IMO (Institute for Marketecology)

Like FLO, IMO (don’t you love acronyms?) is an international organization which develops standards and provides independent certification and verification (through its Fair for Life brand). IMO began life by developing organics standards for sustainable agriculture, aquaculture and the gathering of wild plant materials. Fair trade seemed a natural progression and in 2006 IMO released as a more holistic, integrated approach to fair trade and an alternative to FLO’s standards.

Today IMO works across a wide range of industries to guarantee that in every stage of the production process human rights are protected, producers are paid a fair price and that environmental stands are upheld. IMO operates in 90 countries.

The Fair Trade Federation (FTF)

 You’ll see many artisan handicrafts and clothing carry the FTF symbol. This organization works a little differently. According to the website its purpose is “to support farmers and artisans in developing countries through the practice of fair trade.” FTF promotes what is termed “360° fair trade.”

What this means is that along with fair wages, safe working conditions and environmental responsibility, there’s a drive to empower people in third world countries. It’s the adage of give a man a fish, versus teach him to fish. So initiatives exist to not trade fairly, but to think long term and help grow third world businesses and create long term viable commercial partnerships.

Some examples unique to FTF are:

  • Advance payment to suppliers
  • New product development
  • Problem solving together (if issues arise)
  • Realistic time, work and delivery expectations

Unique Batik is a proud member of the Fair Trade Federation, partnering with artisans in Guatemala, Ghana, Thailand and Pakistan.

There are other standards and certification organizations such as The World Fair Trade Organization and Fair Trade USA which also provide consumers with certainty around fair trade purchasing.

The main thing you can do if you’re unsure about a business (aside from checking for accreditation logos) is to ask questions. Think about it. If you’re running a business that operates in a fair trade environment, (whether it’s a vast online store or tiny stall in a farmers market) you’ll be proud and want to talk about it. You’ll have plenty of information available for customers. A key philosophical part of fair trade is trust in people. So talk to people, find out about what they do and who they are and go with your gut instinct.