SEATTLE - Diana Crane, community relations manager at PCC Natural Markets here, has seen the impact fair trade can have on farmers in the developing world. And so, too, have her customers.
That's because Crane flew to Costa Rica in March to visit with farmers who benefit from the business practice. The eight-unit, natural food cooperative has also had farmers from developing countries come to its stores to explain to customers how, if not for fair trade, their children might have to work the fields instead of going to school.
PCC is among a growing number of retailers that are putting more time and resources into supporting fair trade, a practice that's designed to help family farmers in developing countries gain direct access to international markets and receive a fair price for their products.
The demand is there. U.S. retail sales of fair trade coffee increased from $50 million in 2000 to over $500 million by 2005, according to TransFair USA, Oakland, Calif., an independent, third-party certifier of fair trade products for the United States.
Nationwide, about 500 companies are licensed to sell fair trade certified products at more than 35,000 retailers. Along with specialty producers, more mainstream manufacturers are getting involved, including Procter & Gamble, owner of the Millstone brand; Newman's Own Organic; and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.
PCC started out selling fair trade coffee, and today, its entire coffee assortment - including bulk and bagged - is FTC organic. It's since expanded its FTC assortment to include tea, sugar, chocolate, soy milk, cocoa and cornstarch. The co-op also is exploring FTC rice and quinoa.
Wild Oats Markets also has converted its bulk coffee program to 100% FTC, with positive results: Since the conversion in 2002, year-over-year sales grew 20% in the first year and 15% in the second year, said Simon Cutts, category manager for the Boulder, Colo., natural food chain.
Wild Oats carries about 200 FTC items in 18 different categories, including tea, rice, chocolate, cocoa and sugar in addition to coffee. It recently introduced several new items, including quinoa and rice.
Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh, carries 46 FTC products, including coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar and rice, which it integrates into the Nature's Basket natural/organic sets alongside other natural and organic items and highlights with shelf signs. Giant Eagle prints tri-fold brochures to educate consumers about what it means to buy fair trade.
"By offering fair trade products, retailers are able to ensure that the people delivering our high-quality foods are being fairly compensated for their hard work," said Kristin Millward, buyer for Giant Eagle's Nature's Basket departments.
Retailers plan to step up their promotional efforts in October, in observance of Fair Trade Month.
Sponsored by TransFair USA, this year's Fair Trade Month will include a retail display contest and a new consumer sweepstakes. Winners of both will receive a trip for two to Costa Rica, where they will visit FTC coffee, banana and cocoa cooperatives.
TransFair USA also is offering retailers and suppliers point-of-purchase promotional materials, DVDs and other educational tools, email blasts and article templates, sweepstakes and display contest links, distributor programs, and grants, sponsorships and graphics.
Wild Oats Markets plans to use multiple FTC displays and in-store sampling throughout the store during Fair Trade Month, Cutts said.
Crane's Costa Rica trip was a first-place prize in a TransFair retail display contest celebrating last year's Fair Trade Month. PCC is planning special displays and in-store events this year.
"Fair Trade Month is important because it gives us an opportunity to educate the public about fair labor trade throughout the world," Crane said.
Giant Eagle has invited a fair trade farmer from Central America to visit a few of its units during Fair Trade Month and share his story with shoppers.
"Our primary focus continues to be to educate the consumer on the importance of fair trade," Millward said.
Fair trade is also credited with helping to improve family-living standards and creating more sustainable farming practices. Most FTC coffee, tea and chocolate in the U.S. is organic and shade grown, so farms provide shelter for migratory birds and help reduce global warming.
"By making fair trade a possibility for other countries, we're helping ourselves as well," Crane said.