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Fair Trade USA to Revisit New Standards

Fair Trade USA, the country’s largest certifier of fair trade products, announced late last week that it will revisit its new labeling policy (details on that policy here) and issue an updated decision on December 1st. As part of the review process, FTUSA says it will engage with the Organic Consumer Association’s Fair World Project, one of the most vocal critics of the new standards.

“We hear your concerns, loud and clear, and we take them very seriously,” FTUSA wrote in an open letter to Fair World Project.

worker.jpgThe two sides will hash things out over the next month, and it’s anyone’s guess what concessions might be made, if any. Make sure to check in with Refresh for an update in a few weeks. In the meantime, here’s our second Q&A on the issue, this one with Ryan Zinn, campaign director with the Fair World Project. (note: edited for length)

Your organization had contentions with Fair Trade USA leading up to the new policy. What were they?

Our initial issues go back just to basic process and transparency. Starting a couple years ago, we were one of several organizations lobbying hard to get Starbucks to commit to fair trade. Starbucks said they would start sourcing fair trade, which was great, but then they linked up with Fair Trade USA and a lot of deals went on behind the scenes in regards to volume and licensing fees. Then last year right around this time they changed their name from TransFair USA to Fair Trade USA, and a lot of folks were concerned because, one, that was done in a very closed manner, and two, we were concerned about the legal aspects of trademarking that name and what that means for the larger movement. So over the years, there’s been this unilateral approach that’s gotten people up in arms.

What about their new campaign and the decision to split from Fairtrade International (FLO)?

To be honest, I can see where FTUSA has some concerns. They’ve invested a lot in developing their brand, and FLO was requiring that everyone use the international symbol starting next year. But going on behind the scenes was a big push to let cocoa, coffee and sugar include hired labor or plantations. There’s no need to open fair trade to plantations at this point. Seventy percent of the world’s coffee is still grown by smallholders, small producers, small family farms. The vast majority of them do not have access to a fair market.

Why is the plantation or estate model not in keeping with the spirit of fair trade?

The experience that FLO has had with certifying plantations and estates has been really mixed. There are many situations like what we’ve seen in India, where there’s a workers’ union out in the field every day and can document labor abuses. With certification, you have maybe one or two visits a year, and the visits are publicized ahead of time. So you really have no balance of power. I thin there are development agencies and nonprofits that are already addressing these issues, and fair trade is just not the right model.

What about the exceptions FTUSA has said they’ll make for commercial availability?

That standard of commercial availability means that if an ingredient is commercially available in fair trade form, you have to source that in mixed-ingredient products. Paul Rice (FTUSA’s president) has essentially said they didn’t think this was applicable or doable here in the United States. They were asked, specifically, does this mean that a fair-trade chocolate bar could not contain any fair trade cocoa? And the answer is, technically, yes, and to us that’s a very big problem. As we’ve seen with organic over the past ten years, if it’s not in the standards then you’ve got a really hard time making it happen in policy.

What about FTUSA’s assertion that they’ll bring companies into compliance once they’re certified?

We’re all about transition. That’s what we want in all of this. But it has to be a documented, public and accountable process, and we don’t feel confident they’ll do that, given their history.

What does all of this mean for consumers?

We want to make sure we’re engaging consumers and making sure they are much more actively involved rather than just passively looking for the fair trade seal. Right now they’re looking for it, but if it only represents 2, 5, 10% ingredients, especially when you can certify more, that’s a major problem. Our experience in organics is that if you engage consumers they’ll play a much more active role in the marketplace.

(Creative Commons photo courtesy of Marc Veraart)