Fairtrade and Human Rights and Environmental Due Diligence: much to offer – and to learn

From the global COVID-19 pandemic to the continued fight for racial justice and gender equality. From destabilizing climate challenges to staggering displacement. It’s clear that the struggle for universal human dignity is far from over.

These struggles have raised many questions about different actors’ roles and responsibilities.

Why do some businesses continue their pervasive use of vast and opaque supplier networks, prioritizing efficiency of cost and time over sustainability and transparency? How can governments fulfill their responsibilities to protect human rights? What is the role of private standard setting initiatives like Fairtrade?

This is the backdrop for Fairtrade’s publication “How Does Fairtrade Mitigate Human Rights Violations in Global Supply Chains?”

The publication offers three cases to discuss the human rights challenges that are salient in Fairtrade’s work:

  • Bringing a living income to cocoa smallholder farmers and workers in West Africa;
  • Remediating child labour on sugar cane farms in Belize; and
  • Addressing the implications of climate change in coffee production in Central America.

It also reflects on Fairtrade’s alignment with the human rights and environmental due diligence (HREDD) approach.

  • Is Fairtrade about box ticking or continuous improvement? – The latter
  • Is there evidence of Fairtrade advancing human rights? – Yes, from independent research
  • Does Fairtrade admit where it has room for improvement – Yes
  • Is HREDD still needed if a company sources Fairtrade? – Yes

Further, it discusses how Fairtrade can support Northern and Southern companies at each step of their HREDD work.

Call for rightsholder dialogue

This collection of articles comes on the heels of Fairtrade’s own Human Rights Commitment, published in 2020. Fairtrade welcomes the fresh lens of due diligence for assessing and communicating our human rights and environmental impacts.

Through the due diligence lens as well, we have much to offer for — as well as much to learn about —addressing the challenges affecting farmers, workers and their communities.

Many human rights challenges are intersectional and deeply rooted in poverty, discrimination, inequality. Child labour in Belize’s sugar cane fields, for example, can’t be divorced from the lack of educational and job opportunities.

Coffee diseases caused by climate change reduce the viability of entire communities and contribute to migration patterns that ripple across the Americas. Cocoa farmers’ lack of bargaining power can push children into hazardous labour. In all cases, human rights and environmental violations threaten not just the current generation, but future generations as well.

One focal point in the publication – and Fairtrade’s HREDD commitment – is the need for meaningful dialogue with rightsholders. Without rightsholder input, HREDD threatens to be just another greenwashing effort.

In the publication, we find women, youth, and smallholder farming communities who build their leverage and collaborate with their peers on sustainable agricultural practices, workers’ rights, child labour and fair pricing.

We find resilience, curiosity, drive, compassion, and inspiration.

Still, the road ahead is long. History suggests that any gain can be hard fought and easily lost. No legislation, even as well-meaning as rules that make HREDD mandatory for companies, will automatically benefit the most vulnerable people in global supply chains.

This is why Fairtrade also does advocacy work – to ensure this legislation does not push vulnerable producers out from global supply chains.

We launch this publication in the spirit of continuous improvement envisioned in the UNGPs.