Ethically Sourced Vs Fair Trade: What Are The Differences?

Ethically Sourced Vs Fair Trade: What Are The Differences?

Whether it’s due to the impending environmental crisis or the changing priorities of a more compassionate generation, there’s been a clear change in recent years toward people making more thoughtful and socially responsible decisions. That includes a rise in plant-based eating, a decrease in the use of cars, and increased attention to our purchasing decisions, among other things. 

In particular, there’s been a trend in consumers trying to make conscious choices about what they buy, focusing on choosing ethical and environmentally-friendly products and companies. This shift is tremendously heartening and a good sign for our future. This is one fad, unlike gladiator sandals and Silly Bandz (remember those?) for which we highly encourage everyone jumping onto the bandwagon.

However, making good choices when purchasing, especially when it comes to clothing and accessories, isn’t always easy. It can be confusing trying to track down exactly what a company’s business practices are and evaluating their impact. Further, most people don’t know the exact definitions of what it even means for a product to be ethically sourced or fair trade. This article will help you figure out the difference and explain why it's worth your while. 

Fair Trade and Ethically Sourced: Similarities

Though the terms “fair trade” and “ethically sourced” refer to different movements with different origins, both emphasize the critical importance of a production process that does not harm its participants. More specifically, these movements strive to achieve international trade practices that are fair to the laborers, particularly as they may be low-income or otherwise disadvantaged. 

What is Fair Trade?


The fair trade movement originated in the 1980s with the goal of protecting farmers in developing countries from the consequences of low international prices of products such as tea, coffee, and cocoa. It’s an international and intercultural movement aimed at creating trusting, respectful, and mutually beneficial relationships between laborers and consumers. 

In many ways, the fair trade movement is about bringing awareness to the exploitative conditions under which many people work internationally. It focuses on highlighting the true cost of goods so that when we buy something we think beyond the price tag and consider all of the potential harm that might have been done during the production process and along the supply chain. In that way, fair trade is about far more than the stuff you buy. It’s rooted in a philosophy of justice, equality, and human rights. 

The fair trade movement doesn’t oppose global trade but insists that it should be in service of the people, including artisans, farmers and workers, traders and brands, consumers and civil society, and not just a small group of wealthy people. 

The main principles of fair trade are as follows:

  • True fair trade creates shared value throughout supply chains.
  • True fair trade promotes openness and transparency.
  • True fair trade respects human rights.
  • True fair trade supports diversity.

What Are Fair Trade Products?

Products that carry the FAIRTRADE Mark have met a certain set of standards, being shown to have been made under ethical conditions. This includes a safe workplace, a right for employees to unionize, opposition to child and slave labor, a fair price, and conservation and protection of the environment.

Originally, FAIRTRADE designation was given to consumable products, like produce and dry goods, but today, fashion and clothing companies can also be called FAIRTRADE if they meet the correct standards. That means that the clothing companies, among other things, use environmentally friendly materials and fabrics and that the conditions of their factories are fair to employees.

Related: The Story of the Goddess Collection

So What’s Ethically Sourced, Then? 

The ethical trade movement came a little later than the fair trade movement, in the 1990s, around the time when the media began to expose the harsh conditions of workers. These workers are the ones producing clothes, shoes, toys, and food for multinational corporations. As such, the ethical trade movement encourages retailers and brands to work to improve the conditions of their employees throughout the supply chain and throughout the world. 

“Ethical” Products

Ethical sourcing and the ethical trade movement are not organized or centralized in the same way that the fair trade movement is, meaning that there are no exact agreed-upon principles or requirements for a company to use this terminology. That’s why it’s always recommended to do your research about an organization’s exact practices.

That being said, companies usually use the moniker “ethically sourced” for their products when they have taken steps to source ingredients and materials in a manner that is sustainable for the environment and considerate to the workers and their conditions. 

Related: Add Some Color to Your Wardrobe and See What Happens!

A Warning

Due to the increasing consciousness of consumers about the origins of their products and the impact of their purchasing decisions, “ethically sourced” and “fair trade” have become buzzwords that, unfortunately, can be exploited by companies to market their products. 

Especially because “ethical product” and “ethical sourcing” have no clear definition, as a consumer, you must be attentive and proactive in order to avoid being taken advantage of. This is similar to the use of terms like “natural” on food packaging, which is meant to entice health-conscious customers but is not actually regulated or legally defined in any particular way. 

We recommend keeping in mind a personal set of standards that you would like a product or company to meet in order to buy from them and then doing your research before purchasing to see if a particular item meets your standards. This has the added benefit of encouraging you to slow down and be thoughtful about your purchases, which can lead to a decrease in spending and buying things you don’t really need. 

Benefits of Buying Fair Trade and Ethically Sourced Clothing

If you haven’t completely bought into the movement of people striving to increase the percentage of ethical products they buy, you really should. It’s one of the few things you can do to make a significant impact on our world, improving things for the better.

Human Rights

First of all, purchasing fair trade or ethically sourced products means that you are personally contributing less to the exploitation of workers around the world. You don’t have to feel responsible for being the reason why a 12-year-old girl has to sit in a factory for 16 hours a day, sewing until her fingers bleed. It might sound extra, but it’s the reality of the situation. 

Often, clothing companies don’t even know that the pressure they are putting on their factories to reduce costs can lead to workplace abuses like wage violations, a lack of breaks, and dangerous or unhealthy work conditions. Workers are banned from going to the bathroom or taking water breaks, all for what is usually staggeringly low pay. If that sounds like an environment that you would not personally agree to work in - we sure wouldn’t - it’s only logical to choose to buy from companies that don’t create this kind of work conditions for their employees. 

Impact on the Environment

On top of that, choosing an environmentally-conscious company means that you decrease your carbon footprint, something that has never been more crucial than it is today. There are several ways in which clothing manufacturing impacts the environment. First, synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon are essentially plastic, meaning that they are not biodegradable, they use a lot of energy during production, they are sourced from non-renewable resources, and they are processed with chemicals that are harmful to people and the environment. 

In contrast, natural fabrics like cotton, linen, and hemp are biodegradable and often use less chemical processing. Clothing companies can be even more environmentally-friendly by using organic cotton, which does not use pesticides or chemicals in the growing process, or Tencel, which is made from sustainably harvested raw wood materials.

The additional benefit to you is that these types of fabrics also tend to be softer, lighter, more breathable, and wick away sweat. That’s what we call a win-win.

Why Now?

Like we mentioned, attentiveness to the impact of our products on the environment is crucial at this moment in time. Ice is melting worldwide, sea levels are rising, wildfires are increasing, changing temperatures are affecting wildlife and their habitats - and that’s just what’s already happening.

Scientists warn that in coming years, hurricanes and storms will become stronger, floods and droughts will be more common, less freshwater will be available, our food supply will be disrupted, and diseases will spread. It’s serious, guys. Scientists say we only have one decade left to avoid the most severe consequences of climate change. 

Compared to these consequences, being more aware of what we buy is really a small price to pay. And, hey, at least you’ll be wearing breathable linen when the temperatures get to record-high, unbearable levels. 

...Too soon?

Making Your Voice Heard

In a capitalist economy, every time you make a purchase, you’re essentially voting with your dollars. Your purchase creates more demand in the market for ethical and fair trade products, sending a message to corporations that it is important for you to buy - and even that you are willing to pay more money for - products that come from a company that engages in ethical business practices. As a result, more and more companies will have a financial motivation to move toward participating in fair trade.

This isn’t just theoretical. Recently, as a result of the increased number of people in the United States who are abstaining from eating meat or any plant products (often also because of the impact of the factory farming industry on the environment), major international fast-food chains like Burger King and Carl’s Jr. have begun to offer vegan options on their menus. This is an example of direct cause and effect between consumer purchasing actions and an environmentally-friendly change in major business practices. 

Your Actions Matter

What we’re trying to say here is that your actions really do have an impact. Choosing to buy ethically sourced or fair trade clothing makes a major difference in the lives of workers around the globe, including their livelihood and their quality of life. And it seriously affects the environment - which impacts literally every single being on the planet: human, animal, and otherwise. That makes it something worth seriously considering. 

Even if you don’t change your entire approach to consumption - because, hey, nobody can resist buying something from Walmart every once in a while - just buying a fair trade shirt every so often is an admirable step in and of itself. Heck, even just reading this article and seriously considering the impact of your buying decisions is a worthwhile activity, because it means that you’re opening your eyes to a reality that can be hard for some to swallow: what you do matters. It’s up to you to decide if you’ll use that for good or evil. 

Okay, that was a bit dramatic. But our point still stands. Whether you buy a completely ethically sourced wardrobe, or just a fair trade banana every once in a while, you’re making the world a better place. While you’re here, check out Now Chase The Sun for ethically sourced jewelry and accessories made by low-income artisans, refugees, and small business owners/entrepreneurs all over the world.

Related: The Best Places to Buy Affordable Ethical Clothing