When Fair Trade USA announced three months ago that it was making changes to its certification policy and breaking away from the movement’s global standards organization, fair trade devotees everywhere cried foul. The plan, established as part of an effort by the country’s largest certifier to double the sales of fair trade certified products over the next few years, would severely weaken standards, they said, allowing large companies to get products with a low percentage of fair trade ingredients certified under the dubious promise of transitioning into further compliance. A chocolate bar, they pointed out, could be made without any fair trade chocolate.
The backlash was clearly greater than FTUSA had anticipated, and so the organization opted for diplomacy and went back to the drawing board. Yesterday, it announced a revised proposal that addresses some of the main contentions.
Chief among these is the decision to set a higher certification bar for products with multiple ingredients. The new “Fair Trade Certified” label will go to products containing 100% fair trade certified ingredients. The next step down, the “Fair Trade Certified Ingredients” label, will require 100% certification of the commonly associated ingredient (cocoa in a chocolate bar, for example) and at least 20% of the total ingredients certified.
The colorful new seals — designed to “pop better on the shelf”, according to FTUSA’s graphic designer — will help consumers pick out those products with the highest amount of fair trade ingredients. That’s an important distinction that would have been lost under the initial proposal, which stated that products containing at least 20% fair trade ingredients could receive the “certified” label and were not required to have all commercially available fair trade ingredients certified.
So in its revision, FTUSA addressed confusion surrounding certification and marketing. Where questions still remain is the organization’s sourcing policies, which were a major sticking point under the initial proposal with critics like the Organic Consumers Association. To grow the number of fair trade products in the market, FTUSA wants to open up certification to larger producers in categories like coffee and sugar. In an interview I conducted back in October, an FTUSA spokeswoman said the organization wants to expand its network to include not just smallholder farms, but estates and plantations that rely on hired labor as well. Some categories, like tea, already source from both small farms and estates, and the goal would be to make that uniform across all ingredients.
But critics like Ryan Zinn of the OCA’s Fair World Project contend there’s no need to expand to large producers in certain categories. Nearly three quarters of fair trade eligible coffee, he told me, comes from smallholder farms. FTUSA, he said, should continue working with these producers and strengthening that pipeline before expanding to other sources.
Balancing commercial interests and the ideals of a movement is tricky, and so far it’s been a productive back-and-forth so far between FTUSA and its critics. It’s encouraging to see the organization is open to changing its policies. More changes could be on the way, too, as FTUSA has opened its new policy to comments over the next 60 days.