WORLD ∙ Make fair trade fair for women too

Starting as a social movement of alternative trading organisations in the 1980s, fair trade is now becoming more and more mainstream. In 2015, 1.6 million farmers and workers across 75 countries were certified by Fairtrade International, the largest international certifier of fair trade. Along with a rising awareness among consumers about ethical trading practices comes a significant growth of sales of traditional fair trade commodities such as bananas, coffee, and cocoa in the last year.

Despite the aim of ensuring a fair wage and decent working conditions for the producers of our consumer goods, fair trade is not always doing good. Although it can certainly improve the livelihoods of small-scale farmers and workers who participate in the system, in some cases it may harm those it intends to help. However, few impact studies include gender-disaggregated data, but rather look at how fair trade affects households. Therefore, although fair trade may lead to higher and more secure incomes, benefit can accrue mostly to men while overlooking women or even reinforce pre-existing gender inequalities. How does this work and how can fair trade become fair for all?

Fair trade impact on women

Farmers and workers producing under fair trade regulations, receive, in return for paying certification fees, a minimum price for their goods – which should not fall below market level – along with a premium to invest in community projects, such as building health centres or schools, or business skills training. How the premium is spend is decided democratically by a cooperative of farmers. At first glance this scheme appears straightforward, but upon closer inspection it has some features that negatively affect women.

First, it is important to remember that in most developing countries, men usually have better access to land, capital, and markets. By its focus on export production, which relies on access to these productive resources, fair trade thus implicitly favours men. For example, it is usually men who sell the produce at the market and collect and control the household income. Moreover, even though women play a significant role in the different stages of production, including growing, harvesting, and processing the crops, their work is often undervalued and seen as ‘just helping out their husbands’. This is exemplified by lower wages and less regular work. Due to these inequalities, women’s ability to economically benefit from their work is limited.

Besides carrying out a significant part of the agricultural work, childcare and domestic work is usually also women’s responsibility. This triple burden women experience hinders them to attend the regular meetings and activities of the farmer’s cooperatives. Also, women frequently do not own the land  on which they live or work, which can preclude them from joining these cooperatives. These cooperatives however decide on how to spend the premiums, and the fact that women only account for 25 percent of the farmers represented, may lead to funding projects that do not benefit them. To address this issue, some cooperatives actively seek to recruit more women. Although this can certainly be a step in the right direction, speaking up might be seen as inappropriate for women, or their contributions are not taken into account due to prevailing gender norms.

How can fair trade better promote gender equality?

Thus for fair trade to become truly fair, further effort must be made to addressing gender inequalities that prevent women from reaping the benefits of fair trade. In response to this growing recognition, Fairtrade International launched a new gender strategy early last year. While gender equality and women’s empowerment had been on its agenda before, the organisation now strives to integrate gender in each aspect of the fair trade system and will systematically include a gender analysis in studies about the impact of fair trade.

Fairtrade certainly has the potential to make important contributions, for instance by supporting the creation of platforms among women producers and workers. Other actors such as national and local governments also have a role to play, for example by investing in infrastructure and services to alleviate the time spent on domestic work and supporting land reforms to enable women to own land. However, the impact of these efforts will remain limited if the underlying gender norms remain unchanged. Therefore, commitment of the farmer communities is essential to increase women’s influence and position. With an increasing amount of all-female cooperatives and of women who actively strive for land ownership rights,  there is much hope for a fairer fair trade.

Article written by Lisa JANSEN



Fairtrade International (2016) Gender Strategy 2016-2020: Transforming Equal Opportunity, Access, and Benefits for All.

Fairtrade International Annual Report 2015-2016: Driving Sales, Deepening Impact.

Fairtrade UK (2015) Equal Harvest Report: Removing the Barriers to Women’s Participation in Smallholder Agriculture.

Maconachie, Roy and Elizabeth Fortin (2016)

Smith, Sally (2013) Assessing the gender impacts of Fairtrade. Social Enterprise Journal 9(1):102-122



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