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We recently asked Rodney North, formerly of Equal Exchange, and now with Fairtrade America, for an update on what’s up with fair trade and what a conscientious eater needs to know. Here’s what he had to say.

What can you tell us about the state of fair trade circa 2015?

{{ image(3778, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”:200, “height”:250,”method”: “img”}) }}I am heartened to say that by all indications the fair trade concept continues its decades-long growth towards mainstream awareness and adoption. In the international Fairtrade system, we’ve seen brands of all sizes, from little Glee Gum in Rhode Island to the iconic Ben & Jerry’s and Costco, adopting Fairtrade practices and launching new Fairtrade certified products.

Both small- and large-scale Fairtrade certified farms across the Global South – from Argentina to Zambia – are exporting ever-increasing quantities and varieties of fair trade crops. Today more than 1,200 farmer co-ops and large estates, collectively representing over 1.5 million farmers and farm workers, are now a part of the international Fairtrade marketplace. And some of the newly available foods include avocados, fresh apricots, pineapple and a variety of dried fruits. Interest by retailers, food service businesses and the general public is continuing to slowly grow as well.

Even amongst the faith-based community (a bastion of support for fair trade for over 40 years) the number of denominations officially and publicly endorsing fair trade continues to grow. For example, this summer Episcopal Relief and Development became the 13th national faith-based group to actively promote fair trade products and one or more fair trade enterprises.

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How is the landscape changing?

As with any innovation that gains lasting traction, fair trade continues to see developments that echo what we have seen previously with the organic, local and artisanal food movements. One example is the growth of better-than-fair-trade marketing claims by those who have embraced the goals of fair trade, but are taking a different approach. While it may not be obvious, I believe this trend is ultimately good for the fair trade movement and sometimes can be good for farmers too (though that’s a topic for another day) and varies case-by-case.

Regardless, every better-than-fair-trade statement signifies the extent to which fair trade has become a part of the public consciousness and how much fair trade has become a valuable differentiator that matters to both ethical brands and their customers. Also, such claims reveal a very welcome dynamic where some food system participants are now competing not only on flavor, price, freshness, etc., but also on the quality of the story and the quality of life along the entire supply chain. We can only hope that eventually such a race-to-the-top mentality will begin to benefit the millions who work in the food system here in the US, too.

A parallel to the arc of the organic movement in the ‘70s and ‘80s is the expanding number of fair trade certifying entities. While this can create some confusion it, too, is another indicator of the health and popularity of fair trade in the marketplace. Most of the time certifiers like Fairtrade America, IMO or SPP agree on most standards and protocols. But there are meaningful differences that are worth exploring, especially for those with a professional role and for the most interested eaters. However, since 99+% of the food consumed in our nation still has no fair trade certification of any sort, the name of the certifier is not the first priority.

What does this mean for consumers struggling to understand how best to navigate the complexity of options vis-á-vis food that is good, clean and fair?

{{ image(3780, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”: “200”, “height”: “300”}) }}In the short term this dynamic can admittedly sometimes mean an extra level of study, e.g. “which of these two certified coffees represent the highest bar?” Thankfully, independent non-profit advocacy groups like the Fair World Project have done the research for you. You can check out their side-by-side analysis of the various certifications here.

However, most of the time the average eater is not faced with a choice of different certified products, but rather simply between, say, one kind of fair trade fruit and lots of conventional fruit.

What does this mean for biodiversity?

Fair trade has been helpful for bio-diversity both directly and indirectly. For example, it is now widely understood that severe economic pressure on millions of small-scale farmers in the Global South often compels them to clear virgin forests or jungle, or to take unsustainable short-cuts, just in the hope of feeding their families this year. Fairtrade addresses that directly in the various ways it helps stabilize and increase farmers’ income, and increases their access to technical assistance and affordable credit.

Fairtrade also helps directly. For example, it is the only certification of any kind that requires buyers to pay substantial premiums for organically grown crops. These are premiums on top of the standard Fairtrade Minimum Price. Fairtrade certification also prohibits the use of a long list of toxic agricultural chemicals, even for non-organic crops. Over ½ of Fairtrade certified farmer co-ops and estates are also certified organic – and this number is growing year-on-year.

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How does Fairtrade impact wealth creation for small-scale farmers?

This is, forgive the pun, the bread and butter of the Fairtrade system. It is the only certification system explicitly designed to increase the incomes and wealth of farmers and farm workers, not to mention increasing the marketplace leverage of both parties. With every purchase, eaters know that small-scale farmers, or farm workers, benefit from either a higher price for their crops, an additional Premium for development that goes to the farmer or farm worker’s organization, or both. Since 89% of Fairtrade exports are grown by organizations of small-scale farmers (representing over 1.3 million farmers) this is the most relevant and powerful manifestation of Fairtrade.

These 1,200+ organizations (usually farmer cooperatives) and their members receive not only improved, and more stable prices, but also access to affordable credit – an un-sexy, but critical piece to fomenting long-term wealth creation.

How can Fairtrade improve food access for the small-scale farmers?

Unfortunately, many small-scale farmers in the Global South do suffer from food insecurity – especially in the ‘thin months’ before the harvest – and very often due to economic causes. While Fairtrade by itself is not always sufficient to overcome this problem, it works to directly address the problem of insufficient incomes. Additionally, Fairtrade, through its support for farmer co-ops and the extra financial resources it provides, can abet crop diversification, one approach to improving food security.

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Any final words for the Slow Food USA readers?

Fairtrade is not about growth at all costs – the quality of the change we want to see is just as important. That’s why the Fairtrade Standards are developed in consultation with all types – from the small farmer to the coffee buyer in the boardroom. Producer organizations also make up 50 percent of the vote in the international system’s General Assembly and hold seats on our board.

Ultimately we would want a world where Fairtrade is no longer necessary. Just as anyone working in development, we want to work ourselves out of the job. But seeing the unbalanced trade deals that continue to creep up on the international scene and the unfair leverage held by many large businesses, we at Fairtrade – really everyone in the fair trade movement – have a big job ahead. Fortunately, it’s something that each and every person reading this can help with. Look into how the products you buy are produced, get informed about the world around you, and if you can, look for the FAIRTRADE Mark.


Note: the difference between “fair trade” and “Fairtrade”

{{ image(3783, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”: “100”, “height”: “110”}) }}The term Fairtrade refers to the certification and labeling system governed by Fairtrade International, the world’s largest fair trade system, of which Fairtrade America is a member, along with 24 other organizations, like Fairtrade Canada or Fairtrade Italy. The Fairtrade system allows consumers to identify goods that have met the internationally- agreed Fairtrade Standards by looking for the various FAIRTRADE Marks.

The term fair trade refers to the fair trade movement as a whole and the organizations and products that meet the high principles of fair trade. This includes goods certified by various organizations and by uncertified goods, especially in the household goods and gift categories.