Fair trade is just that, trade that is fair. It is a social and economic movement that seeks to give workers in developing countries a fair price for their goods that are produced in a socially just and environmentally sound manner. Goods that are fair trade certified are labeled as such in stores and are easily identifiable.
(CC Image (right) of Swedish Fair Trade symbol by Rättvisemärkt (http://www.rattvisemarkt.se/cldocpart/236.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh is touted as being the United States first Fair Trade University, and offers fair trade items in Reeve Union, and is starting a fair trade friday's meal choice.
Fair trade in the larger context is seen as a way to improve the lives of producers who, in the free market, are often sought out for their exploitable attributes such as, low wages, lack of industrial regulations, low or now pensions, health care, or other capital costs.
For these reasons and more, fair trade organizations, as well as direct trade and others, have sprouted up around the world in an effort to offer an alternative consumption and consumer choice that reflects the consumers desire to be fair and more equitable to the producer of a product. This way, consumers are more assured that their money is going to the producers, and won't be garnered completely by large corporations and used to embolden feedback loops that propagate negative realities for the producers in question.
Furthermore, it is important as always, to recognize that fair trade, or organic, 100% natural, and other positively viewed terms can and are co-opted by financial interests and used in exploitative ways. For instance, 100% natural in a term that embodies the concept of green-washing. That is, it is sold as a healthy alternative, but the term itself is meaningless and unregulated. It's a marketing ploy that attempts to play on peoples emotions in order to profit from them.
While not all terms in all instances will be positive, negative, or benign, it is important to remain vigilant and use critical thought to question and come to your own conclusion as to what you are buying and why. Whether or not you want to buy fair trade is perhaps less important than wanting to know the commodity lifecycle of a product and what it actually consists of, and where and who is affected in the process of it being made and sold to you. These are the real questions that will lead to a positive and sustainable change in the commodity-based market, where commodity fetishism is promoted in order to keep the perpetual growth economy going. A dangerous game on a finite planet with an increasing population and diminishing resources.