pros and cons of fair trade skin care ingredients cosmetics

The Pros and Cons of Fair Trade Ingredients

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We often get asked whether we use Fair Trade ingredients or if we’re a Fair Trade certified company. And though we can start by saying we’re not, there’s a lot more behind our reasoning for that decision that’s worth diving into. While Fair Trade has some incredible impacts and positive effects, there are also a lot of hidden problems or unforeseen results from the Fair Trade movement, which start to outweigh the benefits.

What Is Fair Trade?

Fair Trade products are those produced with guaranteed standards of pay and empowerment for the farmers and workers who produce them. At its root, the Fair Trade organization has wonderful intentions to provide better wages for workers around the world, as well as supporting communities and the environment. And yes, there are many benefits that come from this work. For instance, the wages for those involved with Fair Trade cooperatives are higher, conditions are often improved, and child labor is sometimes reduced when parents are making enough to support their families. In addition, discrimination is not allowed under the certification, so many women earn often three times what they would otherwise be making. For those who are Fair Trade Certified, minimum prices are guaranteed, so returns never fall below market level. These sustained higher returns often help improve equipment, efficiency, and general quality of life. These are all great results, and genuinely valuable to many workers.

Expenses of Fair Trade

However, despite these benefits, there is additional research that shows some of the unintended consequences of well-meaning Fair Trade practices. To start, the costs for a business to be Fair Trade Certified are well into the thousands of dollars and the approval process is highly rigorous. This means that the option is out of reach for many small businesses who may be hoping to help communities, and it also means that in many businesses, prices have to be raised to account for the costs of using Fair Trade products. For instance, if we at Essential were to sell Fair Trade certified ingredients under that title, we would have to be certified ourselves at a price of ~$10,000 per year. We would be willing to do this if we were sure it was worth it. But as you’ll see below, the unintended consequences and the availability of sustainable (though uncertified) producers means we have chosen not to.

A brief note on expense: although I think we can all agree that it is often worth paying more to guarantee a trustworthy provenance, Fair Trade Certified items are simply more expensive than their counterparts and are out of reach for many small businesses even in the US. This makes it harder for Fair Trade cooperatives to get a foot in the door, as they subsist primarily on the business of small companies with less need for products and ingredients. The certification process and cost itself prevents many worthy vendors from participating.

Unintended Consequences

Beyond the financial component, the success of Fair Trade co-ops is somewhat limited by the size of a population center where workers are based. This means that in many cases, some workers in the community may not qualify to be a part of the co-op and receive its benefits, with only limited job positions for these small operations. Apparently, this divide between Fair Trade workers and those in the community not involved can also sometimes lead to even worse problems. In some areas, Fair Trade workers become the target of theft and violence perpetrated by others in the community. It is also not unheard of for workers to become targets of extortion from local, sometimes corrupt governments.

And yes, while certification is active, wages and work standards are improved. However, once certification lapses, there is no one there to hold employers responsible, and oftentimes unfair practices resume.

Product and Location Limitation

Most of the program’s producers are also located in comparatively “wealthier” countries like Mexico, which has 51 producers, while other poorer countries, more in need of aid, have only a few producers, or none at all. This means that Fair Trade pays to support particular farmers at the expense of poorer ones in other more impoverished nations. Even when paying what could be considered fair wages for goods, the barrier to entry just for approval in poorer nations can prevent certification from those most in need.

There’s also the matter of the main products Fair Trade produces. The majority of products available through Fair Trade co-ops, and those with by far the highest demand, are coffee and chocolate. With few options for other Fair Trade Certified ingredients and products, the applications of Fair Trade ingredients in the cosmetics industry are limited. So while we do buy a few Fair Trade ingredients, it’s not a viable option to source much of what we need to create our products.

Our Intentional Choices

Fair Trade is backed by nothing but great intentions, but as is the case with many things, even the best intentions sometimes fall apart. We support excellent intentions, but only when we can do so knowing that we aren’t also supporting troubling unintended consequences.

Essential does our best to prioritize high standards in all of our practices. We believe in products that produce beautiful results without harming the environment.  We research thoroughly to try to always choose responsibly-sourced ingredients, have a huge solar power array at our facility, and participate in UPS’s carbon neutral shipping program. And when it comes to sourcing our ingredients, we feel it’s better to do our own research and verify responsible wages and practices with each individual supplier we choose to work with. This can often mean finding other excellent vendors that choose not to publicize their fair wages and better practices for the sake of keeping their workers safe.

Considering our mission, and acknowledging the sometimes adverse effects of Fair Trade production, we have chosen not to seek the official Fair Trade Certification. However, you can purchase from us knowing that the ethics of our ingredients and that our careful, sustainable approach to sourcing is the best in the industry. Our purchasing department spends weeks, even months researching and confirming vendor credentials, quality, sustainability, and conditions. We’re proud to offer the finest ingredients, and hope your customers also understand the best ingredients are those that help and not hurt the entire supply chain.

We’d love to hear your thoughts and what you look for when buying ingredients in the comments below.


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2 years ago

This is such good information! Both for the consumer and the small producer. Thank you for spreading the word. Susan

Sharon Hackney
2 years ago

Very well stated and appreciated.

2 years ago

Interesting.. well said. I actually myself (with a very small business in the middle of the states, Iowa) Have wondered about those same things. How do I know it is actually Fair Trade. Thanks for doing the research for me.

Bonnie Davis
2 years ago

I appreciate this information before purchasing product from your company……this is very helpful! Thank you sure much!

2 years ago

Thank you so much for such helpful information. Love all the articles that EWL posts.

1 year ago

Can you give a specific example how you’re doing better by not buying fair trade cocoa butter? The main suppliers of cocoa butter(even certified organic) globally have a lot to answer for… child labor, human trafficking and even the things you mentioned happen with fair trade workers also happens with non fair trade farmers of cocoa butter who are being compensated about $200 per year to sell cocoa beans to the main processors a specific example of how you buy non fair trade cocoa butter would be helpful.

1 year ago
Reply to  Marisol

Hi Marisol,

I talked to our ingredients team about this and this is what they told me.

Our Cocoa Butter is grown in Peru. It is sustainably harvested, and the workers are treated fairly, even though some are not Fair Trade Certified.
Many of the problems you are referring to happen in the Ivory Coast — which is not where we get our Cocoa Butter.

We’ve gone ahead and reached out to the vendor for more clarification, and if there is any other useful information to add then I will make sure to get back to you.

Warm Regards,

Love the article. Thank you for bringing light on this topic.

Diane S Farias
1 year ago

Very enlightening. Thank you