What Is Fair Trade Cotton? (with pictures)

Jillian O Keeffe
Jillian O Keeffe
Cotton field ready to be harvested.
Cotton field ready to be harvested.

Fair trade is a method of ensuring that farmers and organizations get a reasonable price for their product and that workers earn a reasonable wage and have decent working conditions. The system works by giving producers and middlemen a certification mark after they pass an inspection by fair trade officials. A consumer can recognize this mark in the shop and be assured that the item was produced to a certain standard. The fair trade system covers a wide range of food and nonfood items, including cotton.

Cotton bolls on a branch.
Cotton bolls on a branch.

To get fair trade cotton certification, farmers need to ensure the workers are paid reasonably, have good health and safety standards, have the right to belong to a union, and have adequate accommodation if required. A farmer must also monitor and improve the impact of the farming process on the environment if necessary, not use genetically modified organisms, and handle chemicals safely. A cooperative of many farms needs to have a democratic management system. A company called FLO-CERT, which is a branch of Fairtrade International, checks these standards before awarding the fair trade certification.

A fair trade cotton T-shirt.
A fair trade cotton T-shirt.

More than 70 countries grow cotton, and about 100 million households earn money from the plant. The market price for cotton is affected by the popularity of synthetic fabrics and by the fact that certain countries such as the United States subsidize cotton producers so their cotton is sometimes sold at below production cost. This means that cotton from other countries needs to be sold at lower prices, which sometimes does not cover the cost of production.

Developing countries can produce cotton cheaply as wages are low. The pressures of very cheap competing cotton from subsidized farmers and the generally low price of the fiber can also mean that farmers may earn very little from the harvest and may even lose money. Fair trade cotton producers are guaranteed a reasonable price from buyers as long as they stick to the standards set by the fair trade organization. As well as the guaranteed price, farmers receive a Fairtrade premium, which is used to improve the community's living, education, or business conditions.

Fair trade cotton can be bought and sold directly to the public by fair trade organizations. Regular clothing producers can also buy the cotton and make clothes for shops that do not specialize in fair trade products. Fair trade cotton that is also organic commands a higher price than regular fair trade cotton.

The higher prices paid to farmers, workers, and trade organizations for fair trade cotton can make fair trade clothing more expensive, but it also ensures that people involved in cotton production earn more than they otherwise would. Workers can use the extra money for housing, food, or education. Farmers can also expand their businesses to make more profit while at the same time respecting the environment and worker's rights.

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Discussion Comments


Most people I know wouldn't mind paying a little extra for their cotton clothes and towels, knowing that the money is going to a good place. I'm going to urge everyone I know to buy fair trade cotton products.


When FLO-CERT inspects production and worker conditions in a country, do they send their own experts or do they send local employees?

Considering that some of the countries where these goods are produced suffer from corruption, I think it's important for experts to do the inspection. I personally would not trust locals to do it in case the certification is approved when it shouldn't be.

I'm not saying that this happens, I'm just saying that precautions should be taken because the fair trade project is a great project that needs to continue and expand.


Fair trade certification is one of the best things to come about considering the growing injustices that workers and farmers in developing countries are faced with.

I, for one, make sure that if there is a fair trade certified alternative for a product, I buy that. It started out with coffee for me. I had read about how coffee farmers in Africa were paid mere pennies for a pound of coffee beans where those same coffee beans were sold $15 or more per pound in the US. I have been buying fair trade coffee ever since.

Cotton is another popular crop in developing countries, and just like coffee and many other products, this too should be bought fair trade when possible. Otherwise, those farmers do all the work but the corporations make all of the money.

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    • Cotton field ready to be harvested.
      Cotton field ready to be harvested.
    • Cotton bolls on a branch.
      Cotton bolls on a branch.
    • A fair trade cotton T-shirt.
      A fair trade cotton T-shirt.