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December 08, 2016
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‘Fair trade’ compromised

Many readers of this column will be purchasing gifts with a fair-trade label this holiday season, and often buy fair-trade products, such as coffee and chocolate, throughout the year. Other fair-trade items include bananas, honey, oranges, cotton, fresh fruits and vegetables, juices, nuts, quinoa, rice, spices, sugar, tea, wine, jewelry, home decor items and clothing.

Fair-trade organizations seek to insure that products are farmed or manufactured without child labor or forced labor and under optimal working conditions. Fair-trade items are produced in ways that encourage sustainability, support independent small businesses and cooperatives, and guarantee fair pay to workers and a fair price for goods.

Unfortunately, unlike the “Certified Organic” label, a fair-trade label does not indicate legally enforceable standards, a situation underscoring the importance of a controversial decision last September that sent shock waves through the fair-trade community. Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) ended its affiliation with the international Fairtrade Labeling Organization (FLO), which sets labeling and production standards globally. Then FTUSA declared that it would certify coffee produced on plantations, a practice shunned by FLO, which accredits only coffee grown on 360 democratically run, farmer-owned cooperatives.

FTUSA, which hopes to double America’s 2010 fair-trade sales of $1.3 billion by 2015, says that its move will bring into the marketplace big coffee buyers like Starbucks, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Whole Foods and Wal-Mart, thereby benefiting small farmers.

Critics of FTUSA’s decision contend that including big farmers defies fair-trade core principles and will endanger the small farms and cooperatives at the heart of the fair trade movement.

Equal Exchange, a cooperative selling fair-trade organic coffee, chocolate, olive oil and almonds, among other products, has taken a strong stand against FTUSA’s withdrawal from the international consortium of fair trade organizations. A spokesperson for Equal Exchange challenged FTUSA’s decision: “Fair Trade is designed to change commerce.... We shouldn’t be changing Fair Trade to accommodate commerce.”

Available at the Equal Exchange website ( is a petition that reads in part: “The corporate, plantation model put forth by TransFair/Fair Trade USA is not Fair Trade. This strategy means that small farmers will now be forced to compete with large plantations for market access—the very reason Fair Trade was created in the first place.”

How FTUSA’s decision will affect cooperatives and small farmers remains to be seen. In the meantime, how can you be sure that the product you’re about to purchase actually upholds the nine principles of fair trade?

That’s where it gets complicated to do the right thing, as in many of our efforts to make sustainable choices. Besides looking for the fair trade label (be aware that some items do not have a label because that raises the cost of the product), research the company to be sure it is a member of a bona fide fair-trade organization.

A good overview of fair trade issues is available at and a searchable database to find fair trade products is available at www.fairtradefedera