Fair Trade: What it is and why you should care.

This article appears in the Huffington Post.

While it has been a well-known practice in European markets for years, fair trade is just starting to become a recognized term in America, thanks largely to the American public’s growing interest in the global economy and global human rights issues. Manufacturers of fair trade products and ingredients are required to meet a wide variety of stringent standards for certification, and consumers are giving more consideration to these safeguards as they make purchases. A fair trade seal on a product is an assurance that human rights were a priority in its creation.

Luis Escobar Lara and Victor Samuel Galix working at the coffee drying patio at COCAOL, a fair trade coffee producer in Honduras. Photo by Sean Hawkey.

Fair trade farmers are guaranteed fair market prices for their crops, and farm workers are guaranteed a living wage. In addition to the monetary benefits, these farming organizations are monitored for a safe work environment, lack of discrimination, the freedom to organize, and strict adherence to child labor laws. Agrochemicals and GMOs are also forbidden.

Fairtrade America, the foremost domestic certifier of fair trade products, monitors crops from the time they sprout on the farm until they land on store shelves. Their seal on a product informs consumers it has been made with ethically-sourced ingredients that have helped sustain the farming communities contributing to our food supply.

Within the Fairtrade America system, more than 1.5 million farmers and farm workers across the Global South are benefitting from these practices. The additional funds are used in whatever manner most benefits the individual farm or farming coop. Money can go into the pockets of each individual, or it can be applied towards achieving organic certification or building a warehouse – whatever best suits the community.

“We want to make sure they are an agent and not just a recipient of other people’s actions,” said Rodney North, Fairtrade America’s Director of External Relations. “We want them to participate and make this as democratic a process a possible. They aren’t just the recipients of charity; they participate and feel a sense of ownership and pride in the work they do.”

Photo by Miriam Ersch

In addition to the community-centric programs protecting the safety and dignity of farming communities – and the feel-good effect consumers feel when they purchase the products – fair trade also offers manufacturers a long-term, stable, reliable supply chain.

The supply chain is not linear; one farming co-op can supply many different manufactures, and vice versa. “We can play matchmaker for companies looking for fair trade ingredients,” North continued. “If someone contacts us looking for fair trade sugar, we can connect them with a farm in the supplier chain.”

Conversion to using these ingredients can take time as manufacturers connect with fair trade suppliers, but many are finding this worth the effort. While the extremely-committed Ben & Jerry’s uses fair trade ingredients in all of their products whenever they are available, other retailers like Costco, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods have committed to using fair trade ingredients for at least a portion of their products or store brands. Coffee was one of the first products to become a popular fair trade item. Starbucks and Green Mountain Coffee were two corporate pioneers in America, both having used fair trade coffee for a portion of their products for the better part of two decades.

Ben & Jerry’s, the foremost corporate provider of fair trade products in North America, has created a repeatable, scalable Fair Trade model for other manufacturers to follow in hopes of collaboratively supporting farmers worldwide. “Our customers trust that we will do the right thing,” said Cheryl Pinto, Director of Values Led Sourcing at Ben & Jerry’s. “They like knowing we are enhancing the dignified life of farmers. So many hands touch these ingredients. You can almost feel that hand-to-hand exchange.”

Both product safety and efforts being made to ensure human rights are leading more and more American consumers to seek fair trade items – and companies that offer them. For companies unaware of their supply chain, especially of imported ingredients, the first step toward ethical sourcing is to follow the supply trail and discover their origin. Regarding human rights violations in the crop-to-counter chain of non-fair trade products, North says, “Almost anything you can imagine is happening out there. Know your supply chains. If you don’t know where your product is coming from, find out!”

When purchasing a Fair Trade product, we can be assured that its entire supply chain has adhered to ethical business practices. North encourages consumers to seek fair trade items from their local stores. “You’d be surprised at how receptive your local business will be,” he said. “If there’s something you think they ought to have, just ask for it!”

Written by Shannon Fisher

Maya Ixil coffee cooperative in the mountains of Guatemala. Photo by Sean Hawkey.

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