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‘Fair trade’ compromised


December 12, 2012

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.”