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Who Started the Concept of Fair Trade?

Who Started the Concept of Fair Trade?

You’ve most likely heard the term “Fair Trade” before.

You’ve likely bought some nice coffee or even perused the unique and stunning items in a Fair Trade shop. 

But do you know who started the concept of Fair Trade?

If you don’t know what Fair Trade specifically means, know that Fair Trade is "a global movement made up of a diverse network of producers, companies, consumers, advocates, and organizations putting people and planet first.”

The Fair Trade movement, and the federations and associations that help set the standard for the Fair Trade Certified seal, all work together to help farmers and artisans in marginalized and impoverished communities.

They provide them the ability to sell their produce or products to a global market and get protections as well. 

It’s an amazing movement that you support every time you purchase that bag of Fair Trade coffee or that stunning bag with the leather handle handwoven from banana leaf and elephant grass by a woman in Ghana or Kenya.

You, as a consumer, can directly help individuals in the poorest areas make a living that can help support them and their families.

You are providing them an opportunity to make a better life, and all it starts with you. 

This amazing opportunity would have never been possible without the Fair Trade movement itself, which connects you, the consumer, to the local village farmers and artisans. 

But how did the Fair Trade movement start?

How did it become the massive movement it is today with millions of producers, workers, and consumers connected worldwide? 

How did it begin?

Today the Fair Trade movement includes over 3000 organizations and thousands of Fair Trade shops. We at Bonsai & Bear are just one of them!

While there are many stories about how the Fair Trade Movement began, the modern fair trade movement started in the late 1950s in the United States and then was greatly influenced by European ideals and standards in the 1960s.

An organization called Self Help Crafts (they later changed their name to Ten Thousand Villages) connected with a group of needleworkers from Puerto Rico.

The very first fair trade shop, selling the needlecraft of those workers from Puerto Rico, in the United States was opened in 1958.

Edna Ruth Byler (Ten Thousand Villages)
Edna Ruth Byler (Ten Thousand Villages)

The movement spread to England when, in 1965, Oxfam UK partnered with Chinese refugees in an initiative called “Helping-by-Selling.”

This initiative was so successful that it lasted for nearly forty years. 

In 1967, the first Fair Trade store opened in the Netherlands.

Later “Third World Shops” opened (an early name for Fair Trade shops) in other Dutch nations. 

Since these partnerships could lead to marginalized groups being taken advantage of, it became more and more clear that some kind of global governing body needed to be formed.

This organization, which became the basis of the Fair Trade Certified seal, would help ensure the producers and artisans were well-compensated and protected, the environmental impact of their production was minimal, and consumers were paying fair prices.

What items were sold? 

In the beginning, the Fair Trade organizations primarily focused on the trade of uniquely made items, like the Puerto Rican needlework that was sold in the Self Help Craft Shops in the first U.S. fair trade store.

Selling items like this were particularly beneficial to women from impoverished areas since they could create these items at home while still taking care of their families. 

In 1973, the first partnership was made with coffee farmers in Guatemala. Consumers found Fair Trade coffee to taste better than other coffees on the market and it quickly grew a loyal following.

Most people today are familiar with the phrase “Fair Trade” as it is connected to coffee and some of the most popular coffee brands (such as Green Mountain Coffee) are Fair Trade. 

Other food products are now sold Fair Trade, such as tea, sugar, wine, juices, spices, fish, and nuts. 

How did the movement grow?

Since the intention of the movement was to point out inequities and provide different economic choices for those living in marginalized communities, awareness started with the sale of these products.

Fair Trade products told the story themselves and shops dedicated to the sale of fair trade items also were able to share their message of global justice. 

In the late 1980s, the Fair Trade Certified label was conceived to better inform consumers about the nature of their products.

“Coffee bought, traded or sold respecting Fair Trade conditions would qualify for a label that would make it stand out among ordinary coffee on store shelves, and would allow not only Fair Trade Organisations, but any company to sell Fair Trade products.”

In the Netherlands, the “Max Havelaar” label was established and the concept caught on everywhere after that. 

In 1994, the Network of European World Shops (or NEWS!) was established.

This organization now represents thousands of shops NEWS! coordinates conferences, events, and other activities that continue to raise awareness about the need for a professional network connecting village artisans to global commerce.

Later several other organizations (such as Fairtrade International) formed to better serve the Fair Trade organizations across the world. 

Once the label was conceived, the International Fair Trade Association created a monitoring system to make sure everyone is benefitted. 

Today, any item stamped with the Fair trade Certified seal has to meet rigorous standards which can take anywhere from six to nine months to achieve.

Those standards are industry-specific, but the universal standards require that every local community is individually benefitted.

This can mean that, on top of working wages, individuals might receive health insurance, subsidized food, and childcare, among other minimums of care like properly safe and sanitary working conditions. 

Fair Trade companies now greatly benefit their workers and you, the consumer. Children are no longer exploited for slave labor and have an opportunity for an education. 

Workers have sanitary and humane working conditions with access to clean drinking water, despite the fact that many wouldn’t in their towns.

They also can negotiate their wages, join trade unions, and have a say in the working conditions.

Workers are also taught valuable skills at these companies. For example, at Encantada, a Fair Trade artisan group that we at Bonsai & Bear partner with, runs a small ceramics workshop in Guanajuato.

While the men manage the kilns, the women paint each ceramic item with beautiful and unique designs.

This small family-run organization has been around for over 40 years and every worker is taught a valuable skill that can help support their family. 



Women, as mentioned earlier, are able to provide for their families by creating beautiful hand-crafted items within their own homes.

Some Fair Trade companies also ensure women get the vocational training necessary to become managers, accountants, graphic designers, and photographers. 

Fair trade items have limited exposure to toxic chemicals, like pesticides and fertilizers, and are free of mold, bacteria, and diseases. Items must also be sold at a fair or reasonable price, which means you, the consumer, are never ripped off. 

A large component of the Fair Trade movement is also its emphasis on protecting the environment.

All companies that receive the Fair Trade Certification seal are trained in environment-friendly best practices, and many of the items that are crafted are recycled or upcycled items. Jedando Handicrafts is one such Fair Trade organization that Bonsai & Bear has partnered with.

Jedando Handicrafts works with more than a hundred carvers in Kenya to create beautiful wood kitchen items, including salad server sets and napkin rings.

Since they primarily work with wood, they were taught sustainable forestry techniques to ensure that all of the resources they use will be around for generations to come.

They also create beautiful pieces from discarded animal bones that they then dye and etch. 

Jedando Handicrafts

Jedando Handicrafts

The Fair Trade Organization works hard to protect everything from forests, farms, lakes, rivers, and oceans in these villages since that environment must sustain for their children and children’s children. 

Since the Fair Trade movement began over 60 years ago, it’s become a major player in creating a better, more equitable world.

Today, the facts about Fairtrade are rather startling. 

Over 1.7 million farmers and workers are involved. More than 1800 organizations represent those millions of farmers and workers,  and more than $900 million was earned by Fairtrade producers between 2014 and 2019

It’s amazing to think that what started as a small partnership between a shop and a group of Puerto Rican needleworkers has now become a global equalizing organization that’s helped millions of people. 

Most people recognize the phrase “Fair Trade” today and they’re willing to purchase items with the Certified Seal because they know it means quality.

Not only that, they know it’s not a gimmick or a marketing ploy.

When you buy something that’s labeled “Fair Trade,” you are actually helping a small time farmer, fisherman, or artisan.

Bonsai & Bear is now just one of thousands of Fair Trade shops across the world, and we can only hope more will open up in the future!