Beyond Recycling: The Approach of Fair Trade Enterprises to the Plastic Problem

Clothing, makeup, smartphones, medical supplies—plastic is everywhere, and we are addicted to it. Since production began in the 1950s, up to 2017, it is estimated that over 9.2 billion tons of plastic have been manufactured. The problem is only growing: by 2050, annual production is expected to quadruple, reaching 1,480 million tons—nearly three times the total weight of the world’s population today. (Plastic Atlas, 2021; Plastic Soup, 2024) We need to act, and we must do it now!

Why is plastic such a big of an issue? Can’t we simply recycle it and reintroduce it in the market? The answer is more complex than you might think. 

Synthetic materials such as plastic are cheap, versatile and drastically more durable alternatives to other materials like glass, ceramic or metal. As a result, plastic has become one of the single most used materials in most industries, worldwide. While they are extremely convenient to produce and use, however, the difficulty to recycle or break down into manageable components has made them a global issue.

It is well-known that plastic is a global pollutant, accumulating in overflowing landfills, clogging rivers, and endangering wildlife. What is less known is the fact that plastic also plays a huge role in perpetuating global poverty and inequality.

Historically, high-income countries—OECD members including the United States and European nations such as Germany, the Netherlands, and France—have been the largest producers and consumers of plastic. However, without the will to fund and develop the proper tools and infrastructure to manage their plastic waste, wealthy countries have avoided taking responsibility for their excessive consumption by exporting their unwanted waste to countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

Unable to properly manage the volumes of waste they receive, combined with the lack of adequate recycling infrastructure and monitoring systems, as well as the existence of an extensive illegal plastic waste market, outcomes often lead to unsustainable solutions such as incineration and dumping. These practices result in numerous health problems for local populations.

Communities within these countries are also amongst the most vulnerable to the consequences of plastic pollution. As toxic components from discarded items leach into the seas and farming soils, activities such as fishing, and agriculture are jeopardised. Even water sources, including underground water and rivers, become contaminated.

It’s not just local communities that are affected; we are all bearing the consequences of disproportionate and exploitative socio-economic systems centred on mass production—rapidly rising temperatures, widespread climate migration, and economic strain are endangering vulnerable families worldwide. It is our duty, to our planet and future generations, to take action.

Photo credits: (from left to right) Plastics for Change, Chako, Lanka Upcycles / Rice & Carry, Plastics for Change.

How are Fair Trade Enterprises tackling this issue?

WFTO advocates for a different economic system, one that supports people and the planet, with businesses as the driving force. By endorsing alternative business models aligned with our 10 Principles of Fair Trade, our guaranteed members catalyse profound transformations within local communities, creating positive ripple effects that benefit not only producers and consumers but also other enterprises and the lives of many members of society.

Fair Trade Enterprises like Plastics for Change, Lanka Upcycles / Rice & Carry, and Chako are initiatives that provide viable solutions to waste management issues by creating sustainable economic opportunities for underrepresented collectives through dignified work. This is crucial, as informal waste collectors, who often endure harsh conditions and face social marginalisation, play a significant role in solid waste recycling in countries like India, Sri Lanka and Zanzibar.

Blending a mix of creativity, tradition and innovation, these Fair Trade Enterprises are able to transform waste into art, décor, and raw materials ready to be shaped again into new products. From building houses from plastic waste to reimagining fashion by creating unique, handcrafted accessories made from recycled plastic, these enterprises go beyond recycling; they are pioneering new standards for businesses worldwide.

Photo credits: (from left to right) Plastics for Change, Lanka Upcycles / Rice & Carry, Chako, Lanka Upcycles / Rice & Carry.

Plastics present a complex problem for our societies. While there isn’t always a direct, greener substitute for certain plastic applications, there are often better alternatives available. Additionally, there is much we can do to minimise their impact, and Fair Trade Enterprises are already proving that!

We need to slow down on plastic consumption and global collaboration is key to achieving this. We call on all stakeholders, from governments to industries, to unite and coordinate efforts, establish regulatory frameworks, and a common shift towards sustainable practices.

For now, we invite you to visit our member’s search page to explore other innovative Fair Trade Enterprises and to join the Plastic Free July initiative. A platform where you can learn more about how you can reduce your plastic footprint and discover related events and activities near you.

By: Robert Vidal

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17th international


17-20 SEPT 2024 – CAPE TOWN 

We are thrilled to invite you to our upcoming International Fair Trade Summit, set to take place in the vibrant city of Cape Town, from the 17th to the 20th of September 2024.

The International Fair Trade Summit aims to bring together leaders, practitioners, and advocates from all corners of the globe to collaborate and promote Fair Trade practices. This edition promises to be a unique opportunity for participants to engage in enlightening discussions, exchange ideas, and forge partnerships that will shape the future of Fair Trade.

WFTO Membership & Associate Types

  • Fair Trade Organisations (FTO)

    All trading members of WFTO. This includes all organisations that have more than half of their income and/or more than €100,000 in income from trade.

  • Fair Trade Support Organisations (FTSO)

    An organisation whose primary mission is to support Fair Trade and/or provide services to organisations that are or want to become Fair Trade Organisations.

  • Fair Trade Networks (FTN)

    An organisation which is an association of organisations committed to Fair Trade.

  • Individual Associates (IA)

    Individual Associates are supporters of the Fair Trade movement with limited rights. The WFTO Guarantee System does not apply to them.

  • Associate Organisations (AO)

    Associate Organisations align with WFTO’s values but after their application. They do not undergo monitoring and also have limited rights.

WFTO Guarantee System Monitoring Statuses

  • Candidates

    Candidates have been conditionally approved for membership but have not completed their first monitoring cycle under the WFTO Guarantee System. They have limited rights within WFTO. They may not use the WFTO Member Mark and Product Label or claim that they are monitored by WFTO.

  • Guaranteed Members

    Guaranteed members have met the WFTO Membership requirements and are monitored under the WFTO Guarantee System.

  • Member

    Organisations that have no or little income from trade go through a reduced version of the WFTO Guarantee System that does not include criteria related to trade. These organisations may use the WFTO Member Mark but cannot use the Product Label for any products they may be trading to support their mission. This status only applies to Fair Trade Networks (FTN) and Support Organisations (FTSO).

  • Renewal in Progress

    Members who are in the process of renewing their guaranteed status and are overdue on some requirements retain full rights while they work to meet the demands of the Guarantee System on an administrative or compliance level.

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WFTO welcomes applications from established Fair Trade Organisations as well as organisations that support Fair Trade. Individuals in their capacity as researchers, writers, consultants and specialists in their field who can contribute solid skills, knowledge and expertise to WFTO and members are also welcome.

Add Your Heading Text Initial requirements for organisations:

  • Compliance with the WFTO 10 Principles of Fair Trade. Please have a look at the WFTO Fair Trade Standard for more specific information on compliance with these principles.

  • All applicant organisations must already be duly registered (as a legal entity) and active for at least one year.

Who can apply?

  • Fair Trade Organisations (FTO)

    All companies, partnerships, co-partnerships and other legal bodies – as determined by the legal provisions of the country of the member concerned – that are directly engaged in Fair Trade. They may be producers or northern or southern based trading FTOs for whom Fair Trade is the main activity. To qualify for FTO membership, income from sales (turnover) must account for 50% or more of the total income. Applications for FTO membership cannot be accepted from organisations with no prior sales history.

  • Fair Trade Networks (FTN)

    Legal entities whose primary function is to serve as national or international associations of Fair Trade producers and/or Fair Trade Organisations.

  • Fair Trade Support Organisations (FTSO)

    Fair Trade Organisations where trading is not the main activity (proportion of trade is less than 50% of total income). These organisations are engaged in Fair Trade indirectly, through activities that promote and support Fair Trade. These activities can include business counselling, finance, advocacy or networking.

  • Associate Organisations

    This is a special category for national or international organisations that are interested in supporting and promoting Fair Trade, including donor organisations. Organisations that do not meet the one-year legal existence requirement also fit in this group.

  • Individual Associates

    Individual researchers, writers, consultants and specialists in their field that can support WFTO. WFTO expects its individual associates to be active Fair Trade supporters whose experience and expertise in their own particular field can be of practical benefit to WFTO's members. To apply, please submit a curriculum vitae.

    While FTO, FTN and FTSO are entitled to full WFTO membership, organizational and individual associates have only limited rights.

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The WFTO Product Label is more than just a Fair Trade symbol. It signifies not only that the practices across the supply chain are checked against the WFTO Fair Trade Standard, but it also represents support to the battle against poverty and inequality. Products carrying the WFTO Label are made and traded by Guaranteed Fair Trade Organisations dedicated to the sustainable Fair Trade economy. Every purchase of products with the WFTO Label supports small producers and their communities.

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