Coffee co-op KCU in Tanzania, Fairtrade premium was used to plant a new forest close to the office as an environmental project.

Fairtrade and environmental justice

by Angharad Hopkinson

This Black History Month, we’re going to continue to elevate the voice of black farmers around the world, especially black women farmers, but we also want to take this time to shine a light on the racist trade systems, established during colonial times, that continue to exploit these farmers and their communities.

Fairtrade has always had justice at its heart. We fight the injustices of global trade, where the power balance is too often uneven, leaving many farmers and workers in poverty.  

We are part of the trade justice movement, but to achieve justice for producers we need to look beyond just trade. More and more, Fairtrade farmers speak to us about the disastrous impact climate breakdown and environmental degradation has on their livelihoods. Many live at the frontline of the crisis, facing increasing struggles caused by droughts, floods and unpredictable, changing weather. And as well as erratic weather patterns, the climate crisis is leading to the emergence of new pests and the rapid spread of diseases. 

With both the Black Lives Matter and the climate movements gaining traction and political salience, we are starting to see more discussion about how we can tackle this issue. In this blog, we explore how environmental and climate issues disproportionately affect black people and people of colour globally, in a concept known as environmental racism.  As Naomi Klein says in On Fire: The Case for the Green New Deal, ‘We have been trained to see our issues in silos; they never belonged there.’

What is Environmental Justice?

The Environmental Justice movement has strong links back to the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement in the US. As the impacts of climate and environmental degradation became better understood later in the 20th Century, a group of people in America, primarily people of colour, established the Environmental Justice movement. The activists wanted the burdens and benefits of our planet to be shared equally, regardless of race or means.  

In 1991, academics and leaders from black, Latino, indigenous American and Asian American communities (who are the most vulnerable to environmental damage in the Global North) drafted 17 principles of environmental justice which continue to define the global movement today. 

One of the principles states that ‘Environmental Justice affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment. It also affirms the right of those who work at home to be free from environmental hazards.’ Fairtrade has seen extractive practices dating back from colonialism impact both environmental quality and livelihoods for farmers throughout the Global South. Fairtrade works in to combat this by ensuring fair and sustainable livelihoods for farmers and producers globally. 

Another of the principles emphasises the importance of consumer power in shaping a fairer world:   

‘Environmental Justice requires that we, as individuals, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth’s resources and to produce as little waste as possible; and make the conscious decision to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles to ensure the health of the natural world for present and future generations.’

The Fairtrade community knows well the power of the purse and that the ripple effect of our shopping choices reaches all the way to the environment and the lives of farmers and workers. 

Who suffers from environmental degradation and climate breakdown? 

Environmental justice is racial justice. The hardest hit by climate change are those who are already most marginalised and it is when we look internationally that the depths of environmental inequality become truly stark. Environmental issues disproportionately affect the Global South. It is estimated that around 50% of coffee-producing land will no longer be suitable as soon as 2050*. Of course, this will be bad news to those of us who need a morning coffee, but even more disastrous for the coffee farmers whose livelihoods will be severely challenged.  

*Reference: 50% of coffee producing land will no longer be sutiable by as soon as 2050

The climate crisis also disproportionately affects people of colour and marginalised communities within the Global North. There are countless examples of racialised environmental impacts in the UK and the US. To take one example, people in the most deprived areas in England live with the highest concentrations of air pollution. The higher instances of health conditions such as asthma and heart disease brought on by pollution are likely to play a part in the higher than average COVID-19 fatality rate for ethnic minorities in the UK. In the UK Black Lives Matter protested at London City Airport to highlight this issue in 2016. Poorer living conditions for Black people and people of colour in the UK and the US can be traced from colonialism to modern systemic racism.

*Reference: poor living conditions for Black people and people of colour can be traced from colonialism

*Reference: poor living conditions for Black people and people of colour linked to modern systemic racism

Power and means can protect people from the worst impacts of many crises. One could make a compelling argument that the reason we have been unable to take the urgent, radical action on climate change necessary is that those in charge know they will be able to weather its worst storms. 

It is vital that those in positions of wealth and power, who have arguably contributed the most to environmental degradation and the climate crisis, take urgent action to protect the farmers and workers who have the most to lose. 

Who causes environmental degradation and climate breakdown? 

Just like the impacts of environmental and climate breakdown, environmental consumption is greatly unequal. Carbon emissions are disproportionately released by the wealthy countries of the Global North. According to research by Oxfam, the poorest half of the global population are responsible for only around 10% of total global emissions, while 50% of these emissions can be attributed to the richest 10%. That means that the wealthiest 10% have average carbon footprints 60 times that of the poorest 10%.  

*Reference: Oxfam research: Confronting carbon inequality

You can also look at this by comparing countries’ carbon emissions. The UK’s cumulative carbon emissions since 1751 are around 200 times higher than Kenya or Ghana’s. While the UK’s per capita emissions were still just over 20 times higher than Kenya and Ghana’s in 2017. These figures show the disparity between the UK and two Fairtrade producer countries that were once part of the British Empire.

Compare countries’ carbon emissions

Moreover, local environmental degradation in the South can be linked to consumption in the North. Many agricultural products that are exported to the North are harming environmental quality in the South. An obvious example is meat – cattle ranching is responsible for 80% of the deforestation in the Amazon. The Amazon forest fires that were big in the news last year are of course still going and are linked to increased demand for beef internationally.  

And a little closer to home for Fairtrade, chocolate is linked to high environmental costs. In Côte d’Ivoire, it is estimated that 57% of the land that is planted with uncertified cocoa originates from primary forest. Shockingly, chocolate from deforested land can be worse for the planet than some beef*. Therefore, when we talk of exploitation we need to consider local people and the land on which they rely.  

*Reference: Chocolate from deforested land can be worse for the planet than some beef

Without a decent income, food production won’t be sustainable. When farmers are trapped in poverty, they can’t afford to invest in more efficient or productive farming methods to improve their income. They can’t pay their workers a decent wage, or worse, they may resort to using children for cheap labour. Some may turn to illegally clearing forests or growing illicit crops in an attempt to earn more. Others abandon their land altogether in search of alternative livelihood opportunities in cities or abroad. 

Choose the world you want 

This is where you as a consumer and citizen can make a difference. To tackle environmental racism, we need to tackle the systemic racism in many areas, including international supply chains. Fairtrade can help by ensuring fair terms of trade, better prices and technical and programmatic support to those on the frontline of this climate crisis.

Watch Guardians of the Rainforest and see how a Fairtrade cocoa community protects their home at the edge of the Gola Rainforest in Sierra Leone. 

Choose the world you want; one free of exploitation and climate breakdown. By buying Fairtrade you are supporting farmers and workers in developing countries protect themselves from the worst impacts of environmental degradation.

Buying ethical products is a good start, but to be actively anti-racist we also need to continue to learn, raise awareness and campaign for systemic change.

Find out more about Fairtrade’s climate campaigning

Demand quality, not just in the product you buy, but in the life of the person who made it. 

Founder and Global Creative Director of Fashion Revolution

Useful Resources 

Climate Coalition’s Declaration 

What is environmental racism? (World Economic Forum) 

Extreme Carbon Inequality (Oxfam research) 

Interactions among Amazon land use, forests and climate: prospects for a near-term forest tipping point (NCBI) 

Amazon fires: why is the Amazon burning and what’s the UK got to do with it? (Greenpeace) 

Covid-19 impact on ethnic minorities linked to housing and air pollution (Guardian)

Banner image: KCU co-operative in Tanzania, Fairtrade premium was used to plant a new forest close to the office as an environmental project.

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