Fair trade, its history

The first attempts to commercialise fair trade goods were initiated in the 1940s and 1950s by religious groups and various non-governmental organisations The products, which were almost exclusively handicrafts, were mostly sold in churches or at fairs.  

The current fair trade movement was shaped in the 1960s. Alternative trading organisations were established using the products as a vehicle to deliver their message of giving disadvantaged producers in developing countries a fair chance on the world’s market, and supporting their self-determined sustainable development. 

In the 1980s, major challenges emerged as the novelty of some fair trade products began to wear off, demand reached a plateau, and some handicrafts began to look ‘tired and old fashioned’ in the marketplace. In subsequent years, agricultural commodities played an important role in renewed growth since they offered a much-needed, renewable source of income for producers and provided fair trade organisations a complement to the handicrafts market.  

The first fair trade agricultural products were tea and coffee, quickly followed by other products such as dried fruits and cocoa. While in 1992, 80% were still handcrafts, in 2002 food products represented 69%. The inconvenience of going to relatively small world shops to buy only a product or two was too high even for the most dedicated customers. 

In 1988, the creation of the first fair trade certification initiative – Max Havelaar in the Netherlands – turned out to be the solution to start offering fair trade product in large distribution channels, the place consumers normally shop. This without compromising consumer trust in fair trade products and in their origins. The labelling also allowed the tracking of the origin of the goods to confirm that the products were really benefiting the producers at the beginning of the supply chain.  

Nowadays, there are several recognised fair trade certifiers, including fair trade International. This is an umbrella organisation whose mission is to set the fair trade standards, support, inspect and certify disadvantaged producers, and harmonise the fair trade message across the movement.