The History of Fair Trade

65 years and counting!
a historic map of South America and Africa, covered in coffee beans

When I was a teenager, my grandmother would take me to the neighborhood Mennonite store in Ontario where I’d purchase worry dolls and change purses from Guatemala to give to my friends.

Although I knew I was somehow benefiting artisans 2,000 miles away, I soon ran out of gifts to purchase through alternative trade.

Decades and thousands of products later, the labeling, marketing, and advocacy initiative known as fair trade is seeing astounding global growth as conscious consumerism moves into the mainstream.

How Did Fair Trade Start?

When coffee prices plummeted in the 1980s, a priest who was exporting Mexican coffee to the Netherlands wanted to do something about it. He believed that labeling products that respected fair trade conditions would help them stand out in the global market. He called this effort Max Havelaar, after a character in a 1860s novel who opposed the exploitation of coffee plantation workers in the Dutch colonies.

Not only did labeling allow the mainstream coffee industry to buy into fair trade practices, it also gave consumers their first taste of an agricultural product under the fair trade label. Customers could now purchase fair trade coffee in conventional establishments, like supermarkets or coffee shops. Today, Fair Trade Certified coffee is the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. specialty coffee industry. Fair trade has expanded well beyond coffee to include more than 30 product categories, including dairy, produce, apparel, and seafood, among others.

Investing in Change

An international fair-trade-certified labeling system later emerged, as well as Fair Trade USA—an independent, third-party certifier of fair trade products in this country.

While fair trade products now include everything from cotton shirts to vanilla extract, the principles remain the same—to ensure that:

  • farmers in developing countries are guaranteed a minimum price for their harvest
  • workers enjoy a safe working environment without forced child labor, harmful agrochemicals, and GMOs
  • workers earn a living wage that will cover their living expenses

Farmers are also paid an additional “social premium” to invest in their community for such improvements as schools or wells.

What Is the Point of Fair Trade?

While critics of fair trade say that it isn’t the answer to the fluctuating world market and that it accounts for less than one percent of world trade, they may be missing the point: Empowering 1.9 million farmers, fishers, and workers in 71 countries to step out of poverty and invest in their communities can’t be measured in profit margins. To date, $1 billion has been contributed to Community Development Funds from fair trade.

A new Consumer Insights Report by Fair Trade USA shows conscious consumerism is moving into the mainstream. "Younger generations continue to lead the charge as they look toward their future, while bringing other generations along with them," said Paul Rice, founder and CEO of Fair Trade USA.

More and more thoughtful consumers are willing to pay more for ethically produced goods. And it seems that these days, they can have their espresso and vanilla cake and feel good about eating them too.

Click to See Our Sources

“Facts and figures about Fairtrade,”

"Issues," by Fair Trade USA,

“Sixty years of Fair Trade” by WFTO Europe, 9/18/14


Sandra Neil Wallace

Sandra Neil Wallace is an author and advocate for change. Known for her investigative journalism and original narrative style, her books for young readers focus on people who break barriers and change the world. Learn more at She lives in New Hampshire and Maine with her husband, author Rich Wallace.