Carbon Footprint Versus Fair Trade

By Graeme Wiser

For those of you unfamiliar with the term "carbon footprint" and its implications or are unsure what is meant by "fair-trade" here is a brief explanation.

Carbon footprint is defined by the UK carbon trust as being: "...the total set of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions caused directly or indirectly by an individual organization, event or product." In the context of this article it applies specifically to carbon emissions given out by various transport modes during their endeavors to deliver commodities from A to B.

And What Is the Significance?

Carbon dioxide "…is (at present) the principal greenhouse gas" and the biggest cause of global warming which is the process that raises the air temperature in the lower atmosphere due to heat trapped by greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbon (more commonly known as cfc's).

The Implications Are Devastating To Life On Earth

Fair Trade is defined in Wikipedia as an "...organized social movement and market based approach that aims to help developing countries and promote sustainability". The movement advocates the payment of a "fair price" as well as social and environmental standards in areas related to production. It focuses in particular on exports from developing countries to developed countries most notably coffee, cocoa, sugar, tea, flowers, wine, fresh fruit, bananas, chocolate and handy crafts. In 2007 fair-trade certified sales heavily supported by supermarkets amounted to approx. $3.62 billion (£2.39 billion) world wide a 47% year to year increase. Fair Trade produces generally account for 1-20% of all sales in their product category in Europe and North America. In 2003 "Cato industries" vice president for research Brink Lindsey referred to Fair Trade as "...well intentioned interventions scheme... doomed to end in failure." Fair trade, according to Lindsay, is a misguided attempt to make up for market failures in which one failed pricing structure is replaced with another. This is rather harsh, the principles of supply and demand which ultimately govern price still apply and if demand diminishes the price will ultimately reflect this. People will only pay higher prices for a commodity out of choice whilst their budget can afford to do so.

Having given a brief interpretation of the factions involved you may well ask "what is the connection between carbon footprints, global finances and fair-trade?"

To explain this we need to look a little deeper. Let's look at the relative carbon footprints of the transport industry. All vehicles are guilty of carbon pollution, but who are the worst offenders?


The European commission said that greenhouse gas emissions from aviation have increases by 87% since 1990. Boeing, the aircraft company, says that a Boeing 747 burns about 5 gallons of fuel per mile. Paul Charles, a Virgin Atlantic spokesman, says CO² emissions on a normal flight are generally three times the fuel burned. For example: A flight from Jorge Chávez international airport in Peru to Heathrow airport London UK a trip of 6314 miles (10,162 km) uses approx. 31,570 gallons of aviation fuel which in turn produces 358 tons (UK) of CO², a staggering amount.


John Vidal, environmental editor of the Guardian states that figures from the oil giant BP and researchers at the institute for physic and atmosphere in Wessing, Germany reveal that annual emissions from shipping range between 600 - 800 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is nearly double Britain's total emissions and more than all the African countries combined. However, as shipping conveys 90% of the world's goods, each item carried therefore has a proportionately smaller carbon footprint. Although this is true it still shy's away from the point that giant container ships like the "Emma Maersic" which burns 350 tons of fuel a day and according to an article dated February 13th in the Guardian titled "Global CO² Emissions" states that a ship of this size "...can emit more than 300,000 tonnes of CO² a year - equivalent to a medium-sized coal power station." So although each item carried might well have a tiny individual footprint, as a whole the ship has a colossal carbon footprint.


Dirk Flege, managing director of the pro-rail alliance said that "If we want to maintain mobility then there will be no way around a shift to the railways." Freight trains produce only a quarter of the CO² emitted by trucks on a ton for ton basis and for personal transport CO² emissions are reduced by (at least) half when switching from cars to the railways, again based on passengers carried, says the pro-rail alliance. Rail at present has 12% of the UK surface freight market, and to give some idea of the scale of rail transport "…an aggregate freight train can carry as much freight as 120 HGV lorries" according to Newark Rail 2008. Rail overall produces 1.7% of the total UK emissions of Carbon dioxide according to Carbon Pathways DfT 2008.


Road transport alone accounts for 26% of all UK CO² emissions. The rail freight association has calculated that the CO² emissions of carrying freight by heavy goods vehicles (HGV's) is 180g per kilometre. There are of course so many variables effecting this figure including horse power, age of vehicle, congestion, tons of cargo etc. The department of transport estimates for a lorry carrying 20 tonnes, averaging 50 m.p.h. that it produces 670g per kilometre or 1078g per mile. A HGV trip from Boston, Lincolnshire to Nottingham, a distance of 55 miles creates 0.059 metric tonnes of CO² (0.065 UK tons).

Energy efficiency is directly related to carbon dioxide emissions, rail would appear to be significantly more energy efficient then other transport modes, with the exception of shipping, aviation being the worst offender by far. Global emissions from varying transport modes account for approximately 23% of the total world CO² output according to "Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association."

The conclusions from these combined figures are that huge cuts need to be made to counter the rapid increase in trade volumes.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope on the horizon for the transport industry in the shape of bio fuels. Billy Glover, Boeings chief environmental strategist feels that bio fuels from algae, jatropha, camelina, halophytes and palm oil will become tomorrows answer to aviation fuel. Continental airlines have already conducted test flights using a mix of traditional based fuel with a mix of jatropha and 6% algae with satisfactory results. The initial aim is for a 60% lowering of carbon emissions.

Of course each solution has its own problems; cost is initially a problem along with the possibility of huge areas of land being required for some of the crops mentioned. Glover says that "…the optimists say, to supply the entire world with aviation fuel would perhaps need an area the size of Belgium." The projected time scales are however, way off, with 2025-2050 being banded around and as Professor John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam institute on climate change research, states "…we have maybe got 20 years" referring to the point of no return for carbon emissions.

The worst case scenario for global warming has been put forward by Professor James Lovelock, a leading climate change scientist: "Global warming is irreversible and billions of people will die over the next century." Claiming that by 2100 "…much of the tropical land mass will become scrub and desert." This synopsis takes into account the release of huge reservoirs of methane, presently trapped below the tundra surface. Methane is 72x more effective at holding temperature than carbon dioxide. He continues to say that the only place where humans will be able to survive will be the arctic.

Dr. Myles Allen, head of the climatic dynamics group at Oxford University's physics department said: "People will be killed by climatic change this century, arguably, this has started already with the 2003 heat wave in Europe which killed 20,000-35,000 people including 4,000 people in the UK."

John Church from the centre for Australian weather and climate research when asked about global warming stated that "…no matter the exact amount of sea level rise due to global warming the message presented is loud and clear, even at the lowest levels of projected sea level rises in this century mean that 10% of the world's current population will be hit by rising seas."

George Monbiot an environmentalist states that we need to cut carbon emissions by 90%, this includes a complete moratorium on further flights and a great reduction in the number of current flights.

Now Let's Turn Our Attention To Fair Trade

What a wonderful idea but at what cost? The principles of fair trade already discussed have touched the compassionate nerve of the nation and the supermarkets are exploiting it for all its worth. It's a shame that with every "fair-trade" item they don't put a "carbon footprint" label.

In a recent poll carried out by CBS, 78% of all respondents said that they "…think it is necessary to take steps to counter the effects of global warming right away". Half of the 1,000 people interviewed by "Populous" in research for "Walkers" the crisp manufacturers, said they were more likely to buy a product with a carbon label. But surely, and here lies the dilemma, the two labels "fair trade" and "carbon footprint" are contradictory. To comply with fair-trade, helping third world nations, you have to create millions of tons of destructive greenhouse gasses. For example, to bring fair-trade flowers to UK supermarkets from Kenya using Nairobi airport creates a carbon footprint of approx. 167.508 tonnes (this is made up of 0.118 tonnes for two 55 mile road journeys, to and from the airport, plus 167.29 tonnes from the air miles) as opposed to the mere 0.118 tonnes to bring UK flowers from UK local growers located in a 55 mile radius.

So, as human beings have always regarded choice as a fundamental requirement for freedom and lifestyle, what choice are you going to make when the chips are really down?

On the one hand, support third world economies to bring them fair recompense for what they do but at the expense of the local markets and home grown industries, or support local business and radically cut carbon emission therefore helping to save the planet and its natural beauty for future generations. The incredibly short sighted approach typified by the supermarket chains who have jumped on the "fair trade" bandwagon for quick profit and a view to eliminating their competition must be seen for what it is, a cheap trick that's ultimately at our expense. They have already put nails in the coffins of local butchers, greengrocers, newsagents and florists, all of whom are not entirely blameless in this scenario, selling merchandise manufactured or grown principally in China, South America and Africa. None of us are exempt we all need to take responsibility for our actions.

There are some very tough and uncomfortable decisions ahead for human beings, the choice is of course yours.

Graeme Wiser
Article by Graeme Wiser
Fleurtations was started over 26 years ago and is currently Nottingham's (UK) largest plant, flower and gift shop with a 200+ page website which services the world market, most notably the USA, Europe and Japan. The moral and ethical implications of running a business, particularly on the web, have been the prompt for a number of articles which require addressing. Fleurtations owner is a 52 year old graduate. His endeavors can be located at

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