This post is the first in our Conscious Consumerism 101 series, a guide to help you make empowered, ethical choices when shopping and contributing to buying the change you want to see.  Up first, the complex world of Fair Trade.

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase fair trade? Those two buzzy little words have changed a lot about how we view consumerism. You might know these words stand for something positive, but what do they actually mean? And how can they make a difference in your purchasing decisions?

What are fair trade standards?

Fair trade guidelines aim to ensure that the people growing or making the products – and the environments they live in – are fairly compensated and treated with respect.

In many industries, the hard workers and farmers behind some of the world’s most popular goods aren’t given sufficient wages for their efforts. Prices can sink so low that workers aren’t able to properly support their families or earn a sustainable living. Fair trade guidelines are all about preventing this so that farmers and workers can lead safe and fulfilling lives.

For a product to qualify as fair trade, it needs to adhere to strict standards regarding the way employees and the environment are treated. Fair trade products are made with environmentally conscious processes in safe work environments, and workers can expect proper compensation.

Who’s in charge of all this?

Worldwide, Fairtrade International and its member organizations oversee the fair trade movement. The US, however, is unique for having two separate fair trade organizations: Fair Trade USA and Fairtrade America. They don’t directly work together, but they share a common goal of building a more ethical trade system.

Having two national orgs is notable, for more reasons than one. For starters, you’ll want to keep an eye out for two different types of fair trade labels when shopping. But it’s also an important example of how varied ethical product certifications can be. Just because a product is not considered fair trade by one group’s standards, doesn’t mean it’s qualified via another’s. That makes it pretty tempting for shoppers to throw their hands up in confusion and stop trying. (Don’t give up! It doesn’t have to be complicated!)

So what does this mean for you?

Okay, let’s zoom out for a second. How does fair trade come into play on your weekly shopping run? Or even bigger purchasing decisions? Once you start keeping an eye out, you’ll notice Fair Trade Certified or Fairtrade America logos on the packaging of certain brands of coffee, beauty products, and produce. Of course, those are just some of the most popular goods you can buy fair trade. You can find fair trade certifications on everything from home goods to snack foods to fish.

Fair trade also comes into play when you’re shopping, gifting or branding merchandise. Products like t-shirts, tote bags, and cozy sweatshirts can all carry fair trade certifications. When you see the fair trade label, you can be sure the makers behind what you’re wearing or toting are treated with respect and reflective of your values.

So, is a fair trade product worthy of your dollars? Absolutely. Is it the only thing you should be concerned with? Nope! There are many other ethical standards and qualifications that impact how goods are produced. (To name a few: the Global Recycled Standard, Global Organic Textile Standard, LEED Certifications, and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. But more on those in another email!)

With all the steps a product goes through to land on a store shelf – and all the materials, workers, and processes that play a role – there’s a lot to make sense of. There’s so much more we can learn to become empowered consumers.

Here’s a way to keep things simple: when you’re choosing between two products, and has a fair trade logo while the other doesn’t, opt for the former. You’ll be one step closer to buying the change you want to see and using your purchasing power to make the world a better place.


  • Jane Mosbacher Morris

    Founder & CEO

    TO THE MARKET & Author of Buy the Change You Want to See (PRH, 2019).

    Jane Mosbacher Morris is the Founder and CEO of TO THE MARKET, a company that connects businesses and consumers to ethically made products from around the world.  Clients include Bloomingdale’s, Dillards, and Target. Investors also include Techstars, Techstars Impact, and Farfetch.    She previously served as the Director of Humanitarian Action for the McCain Institute for International Leadership and currently serves on the Institute's Human Trafficking Advisory Council. Prior to joining the Institute, she worked in the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Counterterrorism and in the Secretary's Office of Global Women's Issues. Morris is a member of VF Corporation's Advisory Council on Responsible Sourcing (owner of Van’s, Timberland, Wrangler, The North Face, and others). She is also a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations.    She is the author of Penguin Random House/Tarcher Perigee book, Buy the Change You Want to See: Use Your Purchasing Power to Make the World a Better Place (January 29, 2019).  The book has been featured on platforms ranging from CNN, Bloomberg, and Forbes to Marie Claire.  The book was a Target Non-Fiction Best-Seller, a #1 Consumer Guide on Amazon, and a #1 New Business Ethics Release on Amazon.      She holds a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and an MBA from Columbia Business School. She is married to fellow entrepreneur, Nate Morris of Kentucky.