Fair Trade: What’s it got to do with travel?

At the start of college I began volunteering at a gift shop called Global Gifts, a Fair Trade store selling items from artisans around the world. Volunteering was a formative experience over the four years I helped there. It exposed me to art and culture from all corners of the world while opening my eyes to Fair Trade, Free Trade, and the impact of our consumer purchases on the rest of the globe.

My wanderlust grew exponentially as I spent each four-hour shift talking with other volunteers who had travelled abroad. Window-shopping items crafted from over 40 different countries and perusing the library of books that advised on how to be a more informed consumer – it’s no wonder I ended up where I am today, writing about this topic on my personal blog!

Read this next: 20 Tips for Sustainable Travel

What is Fair Trade?

According to Fair Trade USA:

“Fair Trade is a global trade model and certification which allows shoppers to quickly identify products that were produced in an ethical manner. For consumers, Fair Trade offers a powerful way to reduce poverty through their everyday shopping. For farmers and workers in developing countries, Fair Trade offers better prices, improved terms of trade, and the business skills necessary to produce high-quality products that can compete in the global marketplace.”

Fair trade principles includes several different categories: fair prices and credit, fair labor conditions, direct trade, democratic and transparent organizations, community development, and environmental sustainability.

This graphic from the Fair Trade Federation breaks down what these principles mean. For a few examples:

  • Ensure the Rights of Children by never using exploitative child labor. FTF members support children’s right to security, education, and play and respect the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
  • Respect the Cultural Identity of the farmers and artisans and celebrate diversity. Fair trade products and production methods respect the traditions of the local communities.
  • Cultivate Environmental Stewardship by encouraging responsible use of resources and eco-friendly production. FTF members reduce, reuse, reclaim, and recycle materials whenever possible.

In my own words, Fair Trade is a standard which signifies a product has been made ethically – there was no child labor, the artisans are being paid fair wages for their products, the environment was not harmed in the making of the product, etc.

The instagram of the Global Gifts where I volunteered, with a photo of some of their journal offerings. I bought my first travel journal here which I took with me for two months in Central America!

Why Fair Trade and its principles are important

My time working at Global Gifts showed me how great of an impact I have as a consumer – I place a vote with every dollar, whether I like it or not. In our my country and even more so globally, my choices as a consumer impact the lives of those who make the goods I buy, their families, and their communities. I think it’s important to consider the residents (human and otherwise) of the countries that so graciously let me wander their borders.

Let me explain.

Across the world, absent or unenforced child labor laws leave millions of children working long hours in dangerous environments, robbed of their chance at a good education and a real childhood that every youth deserves. When I buy products from companies who use children to do their labor, knowingly or not, I am supporting their efforts.

For example, Nestle has received enormous criticism over the years for using children to harvest their cocoa for their chocolates – accusations of tricking parents and stealing children for this intensive manual labor are not unfounded. Nestle produces an incredible number of products, many of which don’t have their name on it directly, so while it takes some research and planning ahead, I make a concerted effort to avoid their products and instead give my business to other companies who guarantee protection of children’s rights.

When I buy products that damage the environment (plastic straws and cups from my regular Starbucks runs, plastic bags when I am too distracted to remember my reusable totes) I don’t always see the impacts of my wastefulness.

Most often, the environmental impact of my consumer habits affect those who cannot afford to escape it, those people who don’t have the money or resources to separate themselves from the litter and related environmental impacts on weather or ecosystems.

Still, though I can’t see the landfills where my waste is sent to rot, the shirt I threw away last year that I only wore once is still there sitting, and will be for years to come. And though it saved me money, most of the profits from those super bargain dresses I bought online probably didn’t reach the worker who made it; if I’d purchased the dresses from them in person I’d be ashamed to have bargained down the price so low.

Get inspired: Read about my favorite eco-friendly travel leggings.

Basically, whether we’re traveling or not, our purchases have ripples across the world.

So what does Fair Trade have to do with travel?

Beyond consumer goods like clothes and jewelry which impact artisans and ecosystems around the world, there are more direct ways in which Fair Trade relates to travel. In fact, there’s even Fair Trade certification for tour organizations.

What do they guarantee? Well, travel operators working for Fair Trade certified organizations are guaranteed many of the same rights artisans in other Fair Trade orgs receive:

  • Safe working conditions and practices
  • Protection of young workers
  • Promoting gender equality
  • Understanding and tolerance of socio-cultural norms
  • Reducing consumption of water and energy, as well as reducing, reusing and recycling waste
  • Conservation of biodiversity and natural resources

International tourism is not equally accessible to everyone with the wealthy having far more access and ability to travel than the poor. The result is that tourism in impoverished areas can often bring a flood of wealthy tourists. If their money is spent well it can benefit the local community, individual tour guides and companies, and help communities grow. But of course, when used poorly, it can quickly become exploitative with outside corporations making all the money at the expense of the locals.

coffee is a great item to purchase fair trade or from local producers, like the one I'm learning from in this photo at Sipi Falls with our coffee host
Coffee is a great item to purchase fair trade or from local producers. Here I’m learning from a Sipi Falls resident and coffee farmer who taught us how coffee is grown and made in Eastern Uganda.

Ethical consumption is everyone’s responsibility

I think it is my responsibility to protect both the planet and the people who live on it. Especially if I want to enjoy all that the world has to offer as a traveler. I have my qualms with taking a carefree vacation to another country where their children, their economy, or their environment are struggling while my choices as a consumer are contributing.

I explore the environmental impacts of my travel more in the section “sustainability” if you’re looking for more on this topic.

Whether we’re traveling or not, our purchases have ripples across the world.

Now, do I think I will single-handedly change the world with my purchases? No. Nothing is as as black and white as it may seem, and even the option and ability to choose the most sustainable option can often be a privilege.

Beyond that, I think the corporations and businesses who manufacture goods, contribute to enormous about of carbon emission and waste, and have the means to change this have even greater responsibly.

And beyond that, there are plenty of organizations which aren’t Fair Trade certified who are following their principles.

However, I believe what I learned at Global Gifts – we vote with our money. I think there is plenty of room for me, a global consumer, to place my vote with businesses who have an eye toward ethics. And while fair trade organizations aren’t the only good organizations, but the fair trade principles do provide a guideline to assess whether my purchases are ultimately helping or hurting.

mini woven baskets sit in a pile next to another pile of colorfully dyed threads
Supplies from a basket weaving course in Kigali, Rwanda. The Nyamirambo women’s co-op we visited, though not an official Fair Trade organization, operates under the same principles which support and empower their workers.

How can I learn more about Fair Trade and ethical travel?

You’ve come to the right place! Below are some links to external resources about Fair Trade, and my own posts about ethical travel.

Resources on Fair Trade

Learn more by reading about Nestle or head to Human Rights Watch to read more on child labour across the world.

The World Fair Trade Organization is the home base for the Fair Trade movement, where you can find info about how it started, it’s mission, partners, and a ton of other resources.

Suitcase Six posts on Sustainable Travel




Suitcase Six posts on Sustainable Products




Thanks for reading! 

Join the Suitcase Six mailing list and you’ll get access to 3 freebies to help you plan your next adventure! After you sign up, you’ll receive the following freebies:

50 Practical Travel Tips from Solo Lady Backpackers (a 6-page PDF)

20 Tips for Sustainable Travel (a checklist)

30 Jobs to See the World

Fair Trade: What\'s it got to do with travel?