What is Fair Trade? Labeling and Certification Changes

Submitted by dpeacock on

Ever ask yourself, what is fair trade? Well now, the terrain is changing. On September 15, Fair Trade USA (FTUSA), the United States’ labeling body for fair trade certified products announced that it would be leaving Fairtrade International (FLO), the international fair trade system.  Previously, certification for fair trade has always happened under FLO, which includes a network of 19 national labeling initiatives around the world

Fair Trade USA cites several reasons for this decision, including its desire to certify coffee grown on plantations as fair trade. (Historically only farmers organized into cooperatives could be considered as Fair Trade coffee producers).  FTUSA also stated that it sent nearly $2 million a year to FLO in membership fees which FTUSA felt it could put to better use in on US-based marketing initiatives.  Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that FTUSA feels its vision, which it calls “Fair Trade for All”, is significantly different from the existing international Fair Trade model.  Fair Trade USA is soliciting comments on its new standard for hired labor  to be used for coffee plantations until January 31, 2012.  Comments may be sent to standards@fairtradeusa.org

At this point, it’s unclear what the impact of these changes and proposed new standards will have on producers, though there is concern that the pursuit of increased volume will lead to a watering down of the standards, and perhaps less impact on small farmers’ livelihoods.  One thing that is clear is that these changes will not make it any easier for consumers to navigate the world of fair trade, and in fact, the already cluttered world of ethical labels is about to get even more confusing.

Fair Trade USA has announced that it will be moving to a new label for fair trade certified products (shown left). You will see this label when a product is 95% or more Fair Trade certified.  You will see an “ingredients” label (shown right) when a product has numerous ingredients and is at least 20% Fair Trade certified ingredients by dry weight.

You will also likely begin to see this label (left) on the packaging of some of our favorite fair trade products.  This is the International Fair Trade Mark, used in fair trade importing countries in Europe, as well as Canada and Australia.  This label is used to identify fair trade products, from 20% -100% certified, by dry weight, though actual requirements vary by country.  Companies that sell fair trade products in the US that wish to remain part of the international system will likely earn their certification through Fairtrade Canada and use this label.

While on the subject of labels, we should also mention the IMO Fair For Life certification system, which launched about five years ago.  This label is often found on products that do not have written standards in the FLO system.  Also, some companies, for various reasons, have chosen to use IMO as an alternative certifier to Fair Trade USA for products that Fair Trade USA currently certifies.

Now companies who want to sell fair trade certified products to consumers in the US will have three certification bodies to choose from. And consumers will have three more labels to decipher, on top of the estimated 424 ethical labels that are now on products, according to Ecolabel Index.

The proliferation of “ethical labels” in fair trade, and otherwise, can be viewed through two lenses. On the one hand, it’s promising to learn that an increasing number of consumers are seeking ethically produced products and that the market has responded by developing more certifications; and that more and more companies are using such labels to verify the “goodness” of their products.  On the other hand, with so many certifications to research and police, it’s likely that not all of them are as rigorous as they could be, and certainly not as rigorous as a conscientious consumer would hope when seeking out responsibly made products.

Until there is a certifier of certifiers, so to speak, or until the market weeds out the greenwashing labels, consumers who want to ensure their purchasing decisions support fair labor practices will have to do a bit of research, beyond simply trusting a label.  In the fair trade world, for the meantime, this means looking beyond the label to the companies themselves.  What is the mission? What are the company’s operating practices? What do they pay their workers? Do they seek out long-term relationships with their producers?   Of course, the companies that have helped pioneer Fair Trade practices and areleaders in promoting Fair Trade products to US consumers are good choices.  A partial list of these companies includes Ten Thousand Villages, Serrv, Equal Exchange, Divine Chocolate, and many other leaders you will find listed in our Green Pages.

While time consuming, it’s completely acceptable for a consumer to reach out to a company and ask how and where their products are made.  If the company won’t or can’t answer these questions, there’s a good chance the product is not as ethical as any label may claim.

If you are short on time and can’t do this type of research for every product you buy (who can?) you can rely on Green America for providing the information you need to make good choices.  We’ll keep you up to date on the evolving fair trade market and you can turn to the businesses that have earned the Green America Seal of Approval.  Our standards are recognized as being among the most holistic in the marketplace, as we look for social, worker, community and environmental responsibility.  Look for companies with the Green America Seal of Approval.

For now, we are recommending that it is better to support products and companies that use any of the fair trade labels discussed above over products and companies that have failed to make a commitment to fair trade at any level, but also to look beyond the label and at the practices of the whole company.

To learn more about the changes in fair trade you can read these articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Seattle Times. They do a good job at presenting the various concerns in the movement.

We promise to keep you up to date as the changes with in the world of fair trade shake out and help you to ensure your dollars are doing the most good for farmers and artisans worldwide.  You can receive updates from us here or in your inbox by signing up for our e-Newsletter.

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