What is Sustainable Development?

Sustainable development is about improving the economic position of people in a way that doesn't deplete finite environmental resources. It's a way of working for a better today, without compromising the planet for future generations. As the global community faces the threat of climate change and environmental damage, it has banded together to promote sustainable development as a means of reducing our negative impact on the planet. 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outline 17 global commitments to end poverty, protect the environment and the planet, and bring the people of the world greater peace and prosperity. They follow on from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which helped almost every nation on the planet improve their standards of living and the economic wellbeing of their citizens, in fact, they were responsible for lifting a billion people out of poverty. The MDGs also drastically reduced the number of women dying in childbirth, and provided two billion people with greater access to improved sanitation.

The SDGs include a focus on climate change and encouraging environmental protections and sustainable consumption, but also at the heart of the undertaking is a commitment to equality and economic freedom. Because without protecting the planet, we can’t protect people. 

There are about 1.3 billion small-scale farmers and producers working in developing countries, and we know that improving their livelihoods would be an enormous step towards the eradication of extreme global poverty. So it makes sense that of the 17 goals outlined, Fairtrade principles and programs relate directly to achieving eight of the goals, and provide systemic support for the rest. 

What exactly are the 17 SDGs, and how is Fairtrade’s work supporting them?


No poverty

Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere


Small-scale farmers and workers in developing countries are some of the most marginalised people in the world. They often face inadequate pay and exploitative conditions that can lock families into a poverty cycle for generations. Fairtrade works with more than 1.6 million farmers and producers to ensure they receive a fair price for their produce or labour and are able to invest in their futures. 


Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

Zero Hunger


When small-scale farmers and workers have access to a fair wage they are better placed to invest in storage facilities and secondary income streams to make farms more resilient, or implement better farming methods to improve yields. Sometimes a fair wage can be the difference between being able to buy a range of food for a farming family or having to live on the one crop they produce. 


Good health and wellbeingGoal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages


Fairtrade is committed to the protection of workers’ basic rights: keeping workers safe and healthy; allowing freedom of association and collective bargaining; preventing discrimination and ensuring no bonded or illegal child labour is used. Fairtrade Standards also require employers to pay wages that progress towards living wage benchmarks. Advocating for fair working conditions and worker rights is integral to Fairtrade’s mission. Communities can also choose to invest their Fairtrade Premiums in health centres or medical facilities, which they otherwise may not be able to afford.


Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for allQuality education


When a farming family has a sustainable income children are less likely to have to work to help support their relatives. If a parent or parents can provide for their children, those kids are more likely to be able to remain in school and get an education that will offer them more control over their future and increase the job options they have when they grow up. Fair wages and higher incomes under the Fairtrade system mean that families can afford books and uniforms for their school-aged children. Communities can also use the Fairtrade Premium – an extra amount paid per a metric tonne of produce – to invest in the programs of their choice, including schools for children in the community, or training and education in farming, gender equality or sustainability for workers.   


Gender EqualityGoal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls


Women working in agriculture in developing countries produce 60-80 percent of the world's food, but make up only 10-20 percent of land owners. Women can be excluded from decision-making, and traditional and cultural gender inequality can reduce their access to property, money and other resources they need to earn living. Fairtrade incorporates gender equality and women's rights into its programming, to make sure we're working together towards a better future for all. 


Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for allClean water and sanitation


Fairtrade’s environmental standards regulate what chemicals are used in farming, including pesticides and fertilisers, to minimise run-off into the water supply and land degradation. Farmers also get support to deal with climate change and help to make their farms and crops more resilient to unpredictable weather patterns. 

Affordable and Clean EnergyGoal 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all


Reliable and sustainable energy can make a huge difference to the health and wellbeing of farmers and their families. Access to energy to run lights can make it easier for children to study, while replacing fires in the home can reduce illness and breathing difficulties. A carbon neutral program recently pioneered by Fairtrade sold carbon credits to logistics companyDeutsche Post DHL to fund 10,000 energy efficient stoves in Lesotho. The stoves helped reduce deforestation by burning 80 percent less wood, and also reduced smoke inhalation. It’s one example of Fairtrade innovation bringing multiple benefits to farmers.  


Goal 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for allDecent work and economic growth


Fairtrade works towards a trade system that rejects exploitative or child labour and builds sustainable conditions and pay into the supply chain. We believe a more equitable economic system improves employment opportunities and standards, and ensures the viability of small-scale farming and production not just for this generation, but into the future as well. 


Industry innovation and infrastructureGoal 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation


Fairtrade Premiums are payments made to producer unions or cooperatives on top of the Fairtrade Minimum Price to help communities invest in their futures. The farmer collectives or producer organisations decide democratically what to spend their premiums on, whether it’s training about new farming techniques or better practices, climate change adaptation, health centres, schools, or new equipment. Fairtrade supports communities making their own decisions and determining their futures in a sustainable, inclusive way. Paying the premiums through the unions or cooperatives also strengthens the infrastructure of collective labour.  


Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countriesReduced inequalities


Fairtrade believes in mobilising political will to make trade between countries fair so workers in developing nations are lifted out of poverty, not exploited by developed countries. We encourage governments and policymakers to foster the environment required for trade to drive living incomes and wages. Decision-makers must be able to set boundaries for the market, regulate business and implement a more equal playing field. There is enough money in trade chains for everyone to reap an income that permits a dignified and rewarding life, but it takes political will to get there. 


Sustainable cities and communitiesGoal 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable


The collective decision-making processes encouraged by Fairtrade certification ensure cooperatives, unions and communities are inclusive, and all voices are equally valid and heard. Fairtrade requires that certified organisations identify disadvantaged, vulnerable or minority groups to better protect their rights and proactively improve their economic and social standing. Put simply, a producer organisation that doesn’t support equality, inclusivity or worker safety cannot be Fairtrade certified.


Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patternsResponsible consumption and production


Fairtrade works with farmers to improve the volume and quality of their crops, while reducing the impact on natural resources, the environment, or water tables. We also encourage conscious consumption, asking purchasers to be aware of where their shopping comes from and the real cost of buying it. 


Climate actionGoal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts


Fairtrade farmers have repeatedly told us that climate change is one of the biggest challenges they face, and that environmental conditions are changing far faster than expected. So Fairtrade is increasing support for adaptation efforts by training farmers in new techniques, helping them build more resilient crops and working with organisations that can provide specialist tools and training. We will also help farmers advocate at governmental level to obtain support for adaptation and mitigation efforts. 


Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable developmentLife below water


Almost half the world’s population lives within 100km of the ocean, while more than 4.3 billion people rely on fishing or aquaculture for part of their diet, and 10-12 percent of the population rely on the industry for work. But despite our growing reliance on the health of the world’s oceans, oxygen-starved dead zones have quadrupled in size since 1950. Climate change is the main cause of this oceanic deoxygenation, but fertilizer and pesticide run-off in coastal areas is also contributing. Protecting inland water sources from pesticides, fertilizers or other chemical run-off means that the oceans benefit too. Fairtrade’s environmental standards reduce farm waste and pollutants, keeping waterways clean and safe not just for the use of people and animals, but also the broader ecosystem. 


Life on landGoal 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss


More than 50 percent of all Fairtrade certified producers are also certified as organic, but Fairtrade standards on their own prohibit the use of agrochemicals that are harmful to the environment or health; encourage a reduction in the use of pesticides; and work with farmers to enhance the biodiversity of their own land and that of their communities. Fairtrade trains farmers and producers on climate change adaptation and mitigation, and supports deforestation through programs such as the clean stove initiative. In some areas tea and coffee cooperatives have carried out reforestation projects to help improve their micro-climate or protect their farm soil. For Fairtrade, it’s simple: No planet, no farms. 


Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levelsPeace justice and strong institutions


All Fairtrade producers are also owners of Fairtrade. Farmers can join unions and cooperatives or they can vote for their representatives who then have a say in how Fairtrade is run. As for transparency and accountability, the Fairtrade system focuses on specific monitoring and evaluation activities to improve our understanding of how Fairtrade is benefiting producer organisations and communities, and how we can better serve the farmers with whom we work. We publish most of the data annually, and feed it into updates of the Fairtrade Standards, producer support and Fairtrade certification. 


Partnership for the goalsGoal 17: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development


Just as nations, intergovernmental bodies and non-government organisations are working together to support the Sustainable Development Goals, Fairtrade is committed to working at every level – farm, cooperative, national, global – to improve the livelihoods and lives of farmers and producers in developing countries. Our global partnership includes offices in developed countries increasing both awareness and demand of Fairtrade goods, right through to the farmer producing them; Fairtrade leverages the strength of its markets and collective bargaining power of unions to change the lives of individuals. 


Telll me more

We want to make sure Fairtrade's voice on sustainability is heard at the highest levels of business, government and civic leadership so we have delivered a five point policy agenda: Delivering the Sustainable Development Goals through Trade. The new Fairtrade International Global Strategy also harnesses the SDGs as key guiding principles. 

The SDGs address issues that the Fairtrade system has been actively working on for more than 25 years, and through the lens of the Sustainable Development Goalswe can highlight key areas through which Fairtrade can contribute to a fairer and more sustainable world.

I’m inspired, I want in, what can I do? 


You have the power to change the world every day by choosing to buy products - such as coffeechocolate and tea - with the Fairtrade Mark. Look for the Fairtrade logo when you shop, and ensure better prices, decent working conditions and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in developing countries. Your choices can empower farmers to participate as equals, control their futures, and invest in their communities. You can make the Sustainable Development Goals a reality. 

*UN SDG Publication Guidelines