Trading of ethically produced handmade goods is based on an idea that sits at the heart of fair trade: Relationships matter.
The connection-based structure of fair trade developed from the work of a few innovators who had a vision to alleviate poverty through the sale of traditional crafts. At this vision’s core was (and still is) the idea that trade should involve a true partnership between buyer and seller—one that empowers producers, builds their capacity to do business, and improves the quality of life for their communities.
Many say the fair trade movement began in 1946 when Edna Ruth Byler, a volunteer for the Mennonite Central Committee, visited a sewing class in Puerto Rico. She discovered that despite the hard work of the local women, and their extraordinary talent for producing handmade lace and other fabrics, they still lived in tremendous poverty.
Byler had the idea to carry these pieces back to the United States and sell them to American shoppers, returning the profits directly to the women producers. Her work eventually became more structured and led to the formation of SelfHelp Crafts. The organization, now known as Ten Thousand Villages, opened its first fair trade shop in 1958—eventually expanding into Canada in the 1960s—and is now the largest fair trade retailer in North America.
In 1949, another organization, Sales Exchange for Refugee Rehabilitation and Vocation, or SERRV International, formed based on the efforts of Church of the Brethren relief volunteers working in postwar Germany. The volunteers returned to the United States with refugee-produced crafts, which they hoped to sell for earnings to give back to refugees.
Today, the pioneering organizations Ten Thousand Villages and SERRV International are joined by many other fair traders who share their commitment to providing economic opportunity to small-scale craftspeople and farmers in the global south.
These early pioneers referred to themselves as “alternative trade organizations”—a name that reflects the ethos of creating truly unique trading relationships. Fair trade has always been about first considering the needs of people and communities, a priority often overlooked in conventional trading relationships.
As global trade has become more competitive, outsourcing from global brands has led to a “race to the bottom” in which companies seek the cheapest and fastest means of production. In this context, dedicated fair trade organizations have a new role to play.
Fair trade is seen as a way to lift artisans out of poverty while celebrating their traditional handmade items. At the same time, the partnerships based on fair trade provide workers with the resources to turn their work into viable businesses.
By advocating for direct relationships with small-scale producers and shorter supply chains, dedicated fair traders provide an alternative to the hidden abuses that so often take place in a globalized world. This dedicated fair trade model also provides an alternative to large scale, industrialized agriculture and the hazards that result.
From the 1950s onward, the fair trade crafts movement developed a more formalized structure in North America, Europe, the global south, and elsewhere in the world to support craftspeople and farmers. In 1989, a global network of committed fair trade organizations formed and became the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO, formerly International Federation of Alternative Traders). As awareness of global poverty and economic inequities between the global south and the global north increased, many new fair trade organizations began to form.
In the 1970s, United States- and Canada-based entrepreneurs, who defined their businesses with the producers at heart, began to meet regularly, exchange ideas, and network. This informal group (originally known as the North American Alternative Trading Organization) would formally incorporate in 1994 and become the Fair Trade Federation (FTF).
As the number of fair trade organizations has grown over the past half century, so has the sophistication of their products, which are designed to appeal to customers who are globally aware, and now include a wide range of home goods, accessories, and garments.
The FTF and WFTO are both membership organizations that focus on holistic fair trade relationships aligned with common fair trade principles, which stem from an interest in helping people rather than merely selling products.
Member organizations are screened for their commitment to these principles and are verified as a whole, rather than the individual products that they sell.
Included in the principles of these organizations is the idea that traders in the global north share equal responsibility in maintaining fairness with producer partners in the global south. The principles also include essential concepts such as providing advance payment to producers, maintaining long-term relationships, and building the capacity of artisans and farmers to improve their skills and access markets.
The Fairtrade International (FLO) system, which formally came together as an international body in 1998, represents an alternative route to certification that evaluates and certifies a company’s products, rather than the company as a whole. This approach focuses more on fair pricing, fair terms of trade, and how a product was produced. Because of the tremendous success and impact of the FLO system, a number of similar certification labels have emerged within the North American market. While the membership and certification systems are quite distinct, they are often seen as complementary.
The same principles that led Edna Ruth Byler to advocate for women artisans in Puerto Rico are now used to guide the work of dedicated fair traders, offering a wide range of ethically made handicrafts, personal care products, coffee, and food to consumers worldwide.
By providing an alternative model of interaction between buyer and seller, fair trade has empowered producers all over the world. For consumers in the global north, this structure has also helped develop a critical public awareness around trading relationships. Now more than ever, consumers see themselves as a crucial part of the equation. Our decisions to support fair trade within the marketplace influence the way businesses are able to prioritize people.
The innovative formation and subsequent growth of the handicrafts movement served as the foundation for the holistic approach taken by dedicated fair traders today. The Fair Trade Federation has approximately 250 members in the United States and Canada, while the World Fair Trade Organization has approximately 400 members worldwide—each demonstrating a full commitment to the fair trade model.
The Fair Trade Federation uses its nine principles of fair trade as an overarching framework for its members and other fair traders:
• Create opportunities for economically and socially marginalized producers
• Develop transparent and accountable relationships
• Build capacity
• Promote fair trade
• Pay promptly and fairly
• Support safe and empowering working conditions
• Ensure the rights of children
• Cultivate environmental stewardship
• Respect cultural identity