As the leading U.S. certifier pursues a new vision, the fair trade movement is at a crossroads
At a time when mainstream supermarkets are posting the fastest fair trade growth of all channels at 17.1%, the future of the movement hangs in the balance.
Much of it depends on a new direction pursued by non-profit Fair Trade USA (formerly TransFair USA), who citing a difference in perspective, will resign its position as the official U.S. member of Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) on December 31.
Part of FTUSA's focus — designed to double U.S. sales for fair trade farmers by 2015 — involves expanding its producer network beyond smallholder farmer cooperatives to farmers unable to access the support of a co-op and farm workers employed by plantations and estates that produce coffee, sugar and cocoa.
Under the FLO model, farmer co-ops, unaffiliated farmers and estates and plantations are included in the producer network for fair trade categories like cotton, rice, tea, flowers and bananas in order to meet volume demands, but only smallholder farmer co-ops are included in the schemes for coffee, sugar and cocoa.
Another part of FTUSA's vision involves a new approach to multi-ingredient labeling, that would, in some cases, certify as fair trade products that have at least 25% fair trade ingredients, even if they also contain conventional components for which fair trade alternatives are commercially available.
This also marks a departure from the FLO standard which requires that certified products contain all fair trade ingredients that are commercially available.
The multi-ingredient policy would allow companies in with the understanding that once certified, they'd transition other ingredients to fair trade certified.
The policy was scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, but after stakeholders expressed fears it would be exploited FTUSA agreed to take a second look. It will announce any revisions on Dec. 1.
“The policy itself is not very detailed and there are some concerns that it may be abused,” said Stacy Geagan Wagner, director of marketing and public relations for FTUSA.
The decision came after Fair World Project, a campaign of the Organic Consumers Association, expressed that unless FTUSA reverses its labeling standards, it will no longer recognize the non-profit as a reputable fair trade certifier.
“We're very concerned that consumers will have no ability to distinguish a product that is 100% fair trade vs. a product that is only 25%, which is the minimal threshold for receiving the seal,” said Ryan Zinn, Fair World Project's director. “Until we can have any guarantee or process around that we can't advise [consumers] to purchase these products.”
In any case, retailers of goods certified against FTUSA standards — which address fair wages, safe working conditions, environmental protections, and the donation of community development funds — will notice changes at the shelf as FTUSA transitions to a new certification mark in 2012.
The new design features a pop of green to signal the environmental strength of fair trade. Like the mark currently in use, it features the “Fair Trade Certified” message. “The label is designed to capitalize on what consumers are looking for,” Wagner said.
Suppliers are permitted to sell through packaging with the current label before switching to the new mark. To avoid confusion, FTUSA will include both labels on the free window clings, stickers, brochures and posters it supplies to retailers to convey a unified fair trade message.
GO WITH THE FLO?
U.S. companies that choose to support the standards to which FLO countries subscribe, will have the option to carry the globally recognized FAIRTRADE certification mark after Jan. 1, according to FLO.
IMO's (Institute for Marketecology) Fair for Life standards for social accountability and fair trade in agricultural, manufacturing and trading operations is another option. Brands like Equal Exchange and Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps use the mark.
To help retailers get a handle on the situation, Fair World Project is working on a print guide that will provide an objective view of each of the equitable trade models and their marks, said Zinn. He is also reaching out to manufacturers.
While some players have expressed their intent to stick with the FTUSA seal or move to the FLO label in 2012, many are unsure about what to do, said Zinn.
“We've talked to a number of people who are so confused about what's happening and how to move forward,” he explained. “Certainly people will continue with Fair Trade USA, others may go to FLO or IMO and some will say ‘the heck with all this stuff, it's too convoluted, too confusing, I'll launch my own corporate social responsibility program in-house.’”
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, the largest purchaser of fair trade certified coffee in the world, will stay with FTUSA's system in the U.S., spokeswoman Sandy Yusen said.
“Our hope is that the recent developments in fair trade don't confuse consumers about the benefits for farmers,” she said. “We want the message about the benefits to come through loud and clear.”
Yusen is speaking to the part of the plan that will extend the benefits of fair trade to small, unorganized farmers, and farm workers on estates and plantations.
FTUSA recently released a draft standard for hired labor. It's seeking comments on the proposal and will release a final standard in February. In the meantime, it's piloting the proposed standard in Brazil. Green Mountain Coffee is sourcing coffee produced there, but not labeling it as fair trade, Yusen said.
At least one retailer — Whole Foods Market — has gotten behind FTUSA's vision. The chain's co-chief executive officer, John Mackey, is one of about two dozen stakeholders to sign a statement that supports the plan while acknowledging that “this expansion must be carefully managed so that cooperative farmers, who have been the backbone of the Fair Trade system, and who we will continue to support, also benefit from this more inclusive approach.”
Fair World Project is encouraged by the plan to extend the benefits of fair trade to producers who've not been organized into co-ops, but critical of including estates and plantations given their power dynamic.
“The priorities should be first to source from fair trade co-ops and unions and then expand to other operations like plantations and estates,” Zinn said.
Green Mountain Coffee will remain committed to farming co-ops, but looks forward to new sourcing opportunities. Last year, about 28% of its coffee was fair trade certified.
“Our goal is to increase our volume of fair trade,” said Yusen. “We will do that through strengthening relations with our existing cooperatives, through finding and partnering with new cooperatives and also we believe that Fair Trade USA's vision presents new opportunities to impact more farmers and workers who fall outside that cooperative model.”
A fair trade coffee importing cooperative called Cooperative Coffees, whose roasters include Amavida Coffee and Trading, Bongo Java and Conscious Coffees, is worried that some co-ops will be passed over under the new model.
“The local power structures are set up to prohibit these farmers' development and the only way for them to get ahead is if they come together and are organized under a co-op,” said Monika Firl, producer relations manager for Cooperative Coffees, Americus, Ga. “By working with them you can have a much larger impact.”
Firl is also concerned that under FTUSA's model, consumers will have no way to tell whether fair trade certified coffee was produced by a co-op member or a plantation, since both will bear the same mark.
“[FTUSA] wants to quickly increase volumes and they've looked for the easiest way to do that which is putting the same language on different kinds of coffee,” she said.
To help ensure that co-ops also benefit, FTUSA has developed Co-op Link which it says will bring together industry and NGO partners to strengthen small-holder farmer co-ops through capacity building programs like business skills training, access to capital and research to address productivity and yields in the face of climate change.