It's Only Fair

Organics skyrocketed in popularity during the 1990s. Is it Fair Trade's Turn?

Florence was ten-years old in 1994 when the brutal, genocidal war in Rwanda stole this little girl’s parents, her two younger sisters and her grandmother. A year later she was barely making ends meet as a too-young housekeeper.

She eventually had the good fortune to find her half-sister, and the two women moved in together. But tragedy struck again in 2002 when her sister fell ill and died because they didn’t have enough money to see a doctor. A devastated Florence adopted her sister’s small daughter and continued to work hard for little reward.

In 2006, her situation changed dramatically when she joined Cards from Africa, a Kigali, Rwanda based Fair Trade company that produces beautiful handmade greeting cards and stationery from cast-off scrap paper. Cards from Africa employs young people (18 years and older) who lost their families during the genocide or the HIV/AIDS epidemic. These workers not only receive steady employment and fair wages under the Fair Trade system, but also learn the skills they will need to one day start their own businesses. And unlike sweatshop factories, Fair Trade companies like Cards from Africa provide medical benefits, clothing, and education to the workers and their families, as well as a healthy, nurturing environment.

Being part of the Fair Trade system lightened Florence’s burden, especially after she had her own child. Today, she says, “I am grateful for Cards from Africa. Not only do we have enough for today, but we have enough for tomorrow. I am saving money so that my son and niece can attend university. A few years ago I thought that was impossible. Now, it seems possible.”

People around the world are discovering that they can get the things they need while honoring and protecting workers around the globe by buying Fair Trade food and household items. It’s a way to say no to an economic system that exploits workers, enslaves children, and devastates the environment, and say yes to a system that empowers the world’s farmers and artisans, while preserving the planet.

Today, the excitement around Fair Trade continues to increase dramatically—gaining so swiftly in popularity that many are comparing it to the organics boom of the 1990s.

Cards from Africa employs workers whose families were affected by the genocide in Rwanda.


Why Buy Fair Trade?
“By using Fair Trade items throughout our lives—from soap to clothes, sugar to toys—you help people around the world build secure and rewarding lives,” says Elizabeth O’Connell, Green America’s Fair Trade coordinator.

For a product to be considered Fair Trade, the company selling it will ensure that its producers and distributors adhere to several Fair Trade principles, which generally include: 1) Paying workers a fair, living wage in the local context—often including advance payments so they have income during production; 2) Providing healthy, safe, and empowering labor conditions; 3) Fostering transparent, cooperative partnerships, so farmers and artisans have a say in how the business is run; 4) Cutting out middle merchants, to strengthen relationships between producers and distributors and ensure more profits get into the hands of workers; 5) Paying a premium that allows workers to improve their communities; 6) Providing education to help workers to use environmentally sustainable production methods.

To be sure that a product was truly made or grown under Fair Trade standards, shoppers can look for Fair Trade certification or for items from companies that are members of the Fair Trade Federation (FTF).

Fair trade certification means that an independent third-party organization—usually TransFair USA, TransFair Canada, or the Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International’s FLO-CERT—audits production facilities each year to ensure compliance with Fair Trade criteria. Right now, Fair Trade Certified™ products are mostly commodities: sugar, chocolate, coffee, tea, fruit, herbs, rice, and vanilla. Products are certified Fair Trade, not companies, so certification doesn’t indicate that the company selling the item adheres to Fair Trade values in other aspects of its business.

FTF, on the other hand, screens businesses, not products, for a deep commitment to Fair Trade. Any company can apply for membership, including those that sell products for which certification isn’t available, like crafts and jewelry.

“We look at all of a company’s systems along the supply chain,” says Carmen Iezzi, FTF’s executive director. “We evaluate how business as a whole operates and whether it has Fair Trade at heart of what it does.”

Each year, FTF members must submit updated data about how they are “pursuing stronger relationships and better partnerships” with producers—and FTF also rescreens a subset of its membership annually.

“FTF businesses are fully committed to Fair Trade, and often go above and beyond to help communities and workers,” says O’Connell.

The Ripple Effects of Fair Trade
But does Fair Trade work? Comfort Kumeah, a schoolteacher and cocoa farmer in Mim, Ghana, says yes.

Before she entered the Fair Trade system, Kumeah was struggling to support her family even with two jobs. Unscrupulous middle merchants who came to her tiny village paid rock-bottom prices for her cocoa crops.

“Before Fair Trade, we growers were cheated. People adjusted the scales” so it appeared the farmers’ crops weighed less than they actually did, she says. “We got little money from the purchasers and no bonuses. The growers’ welfare was neglected.”

So when she found out about the Kuapa Kokoo Fair Trade chocolate cooperative, she signed up. Kuapa Kokoo is 100 percent owned and run by Ghanaian farmers themselves, giving these 45,000 people a voice in day-to-day business decisions.

The co-op owns nearly half of the shares in the Divine Chocolate company, and it sells about 1,000 tons of Fair Trade Certified™ chocolate to Divine and other companies each year. Says Kumeah, “I joined Kuapa Kokoo because I saw it was the only cooperative which could solve some of our problems—they trade without cheating, with the welfare of the growers at heart. Growers make their own decisions.”

While world cocoa prices have fallen to around $1,000 per ton, Kuapa Kokoo receives a guaranteed, stable Fair Trade price of approximately $1,600 per ton, plus a $150 per ton premium. That premium has helped fund community projects, a credit union for farmers, cash bonuses, and efforts to enhance the status and participation of local women. In contrast, an estimated 109,000 children—around 10,000 of them slaves—toil on conventional cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast, which produces 43 percent of the world’s cocoa. Much of this chocolate ends up in M&Ms, Hershey bars, and other popular candies that US children enjoy.

Fortunately, business is booming for Kuapa Kokoo and for other Fair Trade producers around the world. In fact, Kuapa farmers are doing so well, they decided to share the wealth. They recently gave Divine their blessing to purchase cocoa from the first Fair Trade co-op in Sierra Leone, Kpeya Agricultural Enterprise (KAE).

KAE member Ibrahim Moseray with a Divine Fair Trade chocolate bar.

In a country where over 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, cocoa farmer Ibrahim Moseray started KAE as a way to prevent traders from cheating farmers. KAE’s cocoa used to be of poor quality, but Kuapa Kokoo farmers traveled to Sierra Leone to teach their advanced production methods to Moseray and his colleagues. Last April, KAE sent out its first container of Fair Trade cocoa that was of the high quality required for Divine.

“Now the KAE farmers have the confidence that they can grow more cocoa, export more cocoa, and other Fair Trade buyers may want it,” says Erin Gorman, CEO of Divine. “Kuapa farmers are particularly proud that they could help KAE.”

2009: Fair Trade’s Best Year Yet
A decade ago, coffee was the only Fair Trade Certified™ product available in the US, and it was sold only through a smattering of stores. In 2009, TransFair certified upwards of 100 million pounds of coffee—more than it certified in its first seven years combined.

Today, shoppers can easily find a wide range of Fair Trade products in stores, with more to come in the future. Globally, Fair Trade sales hit the $5 billion mark last year, with about one-third of that coming from the US. In 2009, Fair Trade helped over 1 million producers—and over 5 million family members—lift themselves up economically.

The Fair Trade boom has even continued through the economic downturn. “We saw a 20 percent growth in Fair Trade sales from 2007-2008, and Fair Trade grew 7 percent from 2008-2009,” says TransFair USA spokesperson Stacy Wagner. “That’s healthy growth, even during 2009’s financial crisis.”

Currently there are more than 250 Fair Trade businesses that are FTF members. Sales from these dedicated FTF companies have grown by more than 100 percent since 2004. “Our members are holding steady in this economic climate, because they deliver a great product in the most cost effective way possible,” says FTF’s Carmen Iezzi. “And Fair Trade customers are really loyal.” In 2009, Fair Trade’s overall growth directed $48 million to producers in the form of sustainable wages, and $14 million in premiums for community development projects like schools and clinics.

But why are sales so strong in the US? While the majority of European shoppers know what Fair Trade is, only 29 percent of US shoppers know what Fair Trade means. Wagner has a theory: “People often buy Fair Trade products because they’re high-quality, not because of the Fair Trade Certified label.”

The Fair Trade system ensures that farmers use methods that result in a sustainable product, she explains, which often results in an excellent product. For example, growing coffee in the shade preserves migratory bird habitat and prevents soil erosion—and it also results in better flavor. Iezzi agrees. “What makes Fair Trade sustainable is the high quality of the products,” she says. “This is the result of the long-term, respectful partnerships between the organizations and the artisans and farmers. They work together to create a great product.”

As Fair Trade continues to expand, Wagner says TransFair’s goal is to simultaneously grow the number of Americans who recognize it: “If we can raise the number of consumers who know about and then demand Fair Trade products, think of what we can do!”

Raising Consumer Consciousness
While customers originally may be drawn to a Fair Trade item for its excellence, the social aspect is what often cements their loyalty, says Iezzi.

In fact, it seems that Fair Trade may be on the verge of a breakthrough with US consumers for that reason. Every year, foodies at cable television’s Food Channel and the National Restaurant Association predict the year’s hottest food trends. One trend noted for 2010: people want to know more about how their food was grown.

“It’s everything from looking for mercury-safe seafood to wanting to know that humane treatment was given to farm animals,” stated The Food Channel Web site. “It’s about no hormones in meats, and organic fruits and vegetables. It’s about Fair Trade chocolate and spices.”

As shoppers jump on this trend and demand more responsible products, they’re forcing corporations to offer greener items—including Fair Trade options. Bruegger’s Bagels now offers at least one variety of Fair Trade coffee from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in all of its stores. Starbucks doubled its Fair Trade coffee purchases to 40 million pounds in 2009, making it the world’s largest buyer of Fair Trade coffee by volume. And Green & Blacks, owned by Cadbury, recently committed to going 100 percent Fair Trade Certified.

In perhaps the most significant corporate move to support Fair Trade, ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s, owned by Unilever, announced in February that by 2013 it will use only Fair Trade Certified ingredients—a whopping 132 of them—in its 58 flavors. The move will involve 11 Fair Trade cooperatives around the world, with over 33,000 members, and it will likely bring a whole new set of ingredients to market for other companies to use in their products.

“It’s great to see larger companies jumping on the Fair Trade bandwagon—they can reach a huge number of people,” says Green America’s Elizabeth O’Connell. “And those who want to make the greatest difference should seek out companies with the strongest commitment to Fair Trade—like Equal Exchange, Dr. Bronner’s, SERRV International, and FTF members.”

A Boom in Activism
Fair Trade’s continued success in empowering workers depends on people using the power of their everyday purchases to support it. It’s not about buying more—instead, the Fair Trade movement encourages all people to be mindful of what they do buy.

Fair Trade products stand up to conventional items in terms of quality. Now it’s time for every Fair Trade advocate to encourage other people and businesses to embrace it. Because the more people who support Fair Trade, the more success stories like those from the workers behind Cards from Africa and Divine Chocolate will supplant stories of sweatshop abuses and child labor.