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Q&A: Fair Trade USA

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fair_trade_usa_logo.jpg Earlier this week I posted about Fair Trade USA’s controversial resignation from Fairtrade International (FLO), the movement’s governing body. The move grew out of FTUSA’s belief that FLO certification standards were too exclusive and inconsistent. Only by developing its own standards, FTUSA decided, could it reach more businesses, producers and consumers. Numerous fair trade groups, meanwhile, have condemned FTUSA, saying the organization has compromised its integrity in a rush to court large manufacturers. Here, in the first of two Q&As to be posted on this topic, is my conversation with Stacy Wagner, director of marketing and public relations with Fair Trade USA (note: edited for length).

What issues did Fair Trade USA have with the international organization’s (FLO’s) standards?

We thought they were too exclusive. In tea, for example, you have smallholder farmers organized into cooperatives, and you also have estates where the pickers participate in fair trade certification to benefit the workers. Coffee, however, is developed for smallholder cooperatives only. What we want to see are standards based on the labor scenario. So whether it be cooperative coffee or contract production or hired labor, those standards should be spread across all categories. We’re trying to open up supply so that it will benefit more people and give more companies more opportunity to do good.

What does resignation from FLO signal?

We want to continue an aggressive innovation agenda so that we can double our impact. In order to do that, we need to make some changes. Our relationship with FLO was simply no longer sustainable. We’re spending about $1.7 million annually with them, which was 23% of our budget. We believe we can invest that money here in the United States to grow significantly in the world’s largest consumer market.

What’s your response to critics like the Organic Consumers Association and others who say the new standards FTUSA has established are unnecessary and too watered down?

Right now we still recognize FLO standards in every product category. The only place we’re changing the standard and making it more accessible to workers and producers is in coffee right now. The issue the OCA has with us is the fact that we have two different labeling policies. We have one labeling policy that is for whole products. So a bag of coffee, a box of cocoa. But then there are products like cookies where the majority of your ingredients aren’t even FT certifiable, and our ingredients policy says at least 25% of the dry weight ingredients in that mix need to be FT certified. That’s actually stronger than the threshold set by FLO, which requires 20%. One of the other sticking points is commercial availability. We say in our policy that we allow exceptions for lack of commercial availability in certain products. So for instance, if you move to have your cocoa FT certified, great, we’re with you. But if you can’t certify your sugar right now because it makes the chocolate bar go from $1 to $3, then we will work with you to continue to support that cocoa until the sugar becomes commercially available.

So FTUSA would help that company make that transition once it cleared the bar for certification?

One of our major services here at FTUSA is to build the supply of fair trade ingredients in the United States. It’s not as simple as a company calling up and saying they need to buy fair trade certified sugar. It’s fair trade certified sugar in this volume from this region with this taste profile. We go out and build that supply chain.

What’s the ultimate goal in shaking things up this way— is it to raise awareness, and then everything else will follow?

We want to keep a high level of certification. We also want to support cooperatives while we open up new supply. The cooperative sector will grow as the new supply becomes available because a rising tide lifts all ships. Eventually all of this product in the U.S. market will allow for greater awareness. So we’re really looking at this as a holistic sustainable model where greater awareness equals more purchases, which equals greater impact.

Next week: A Q&A with Ryan Zinn, campaign director with the Fair World Project

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