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Plan to Help Grow Fair Trade Could Hinder It

Plan to Help Grow Fair Trade Could Hinder It

A new plan by Fair Trade USA aims to build on the momentum of the movement at a time when sales of products supporting the equitable trade model are up 17.1% in the food channel, according to SPINS.

Part of the strategy — designed to double U.S. sales for Fair Trade farmers by 2015 — involves expanding its producer network beyond smallholder farmer co-ops to include plantations and estates that rely on worker labor, in categories like coffee. The move is controversial given these operations' power dynamic.

Another change involves a more lenient certification policy that has drawn such concern from some stakeholders it's prompted FTUSA to take a second look and conduct a “full review.” It will announce its findings along with any revisions on Dec. 1.

Basically, the policy that was to take effect Jan. 1 would make it possible for a product that has at least 25% fair trade ingredients to become Fair Trade Certified, even if it contains, say, conventional sugar, or other ingredients for which fair trade options exist. This marks a departure from the Fairtrade International (FLO) standard that requires a certified product contain all fair trade ingredients that are commercially available. (Citing a difference in perspective, FTUSA will resign its membership from FLO at the end of this year.)

I don't doubt that nonprofit FTUSA is genuinely committed to growing the movement for the benefit of producers. I just hope it thinks through the scenario that is likely to play out on shelves should the multi-ingredients policy be adopted in its current form.

The new standard would allow companies in with the understanding that once certified, they'd work to transition any conventional ingredients to fair trade certified. But in the meantime, such products would enjoy an unfair advantage, one that might work as incentive to keep fair trade ingredients at a minimum.

That's because consumers would have no way to distinguish between, say, a chocolate bar that sources all fair trade ingredients and one that meets the minimum threshold for certification. Since both would bear the Fair Trade Certified seal, shoppers would naturally move on to compare price.

The candy containing fewer fair trade ingredients will likely cost much less than its counterpart, since its components are subject to fewer premiums than fair trade commodities. One solution would be to diplay the percentage of fair trade ingredients that a product contains, on its label. Only then could the model truly support conscious consumerism.