A few weeks ago I took a drive down to Orange County to check out the Natural Products Expo West 2011, one of the world's largest natural, organic and healthy products trade show with more than 3,500 exhibitors and more than 58,000 attendees inside 1 million square feet of exhibition halls at the Anaheim Convention Center. I spent four hours wandering the aisles, tasting samples and talking to exhibitors, and by the time I left the show, I was pretty buzzed. I've never tasted so much chocolate, coffee, tea and sugar in the course of an afternoon.
A swift evolution of Fair Trade
Nobody was flogging caffeine, chocolate or sugar when I went to my first natural products trade show more than three decades ago. That one was in Las Vegas, which was in and of itself amusing. In the pre-Whole Foods, pre-Starbucks days, there was quite a contrast between what was outside the convention center and the earnest Birkenstock-wearing hippies flogging their tofu, grains, sprouts and natural toothpaste inside. Today natural products are a multimillion-dollar industry encompassing much more than organic and natural foods. A map of the convention center floor plan shows entire halls and parts of halls color-coded for pet food, supplements, health and beauty "supplies" and "natural living."
What caught my eye at this year's show were the Fair Trade Certified™ labels that many of the products displayed, particularly products made with raw materials from developing countries in the Third World (e.g., coffee, chocolate, tea, sweeteners, coconut, and also quinoa from Bolivia). I stumbled upon Oakland-based Fair Trade USA 's booth -- they are the leading third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the United States -- and, after an animated chat with their young, committed information officers, I set off to find some of the Fair Trade companies they had certified. I ate incredible dairy-free coffee and chocolate ice cream made with coconut milk at Luna & Larry's Coconut Bliss; tasted divine chocolate at Divine Chocolate and more divine chocolate at Kopali Organics, Green and Black's Organic Chocolate and Alter Eco, a company I love that also distributes, among other foods, red jasmine rice from Thailand, quinoa (red, regular and now black quinoa) from Bolivia, and sugar from the Philippines. I drank beguiling teas at Zhena's Gypsy Tea and sweetened my Fair Trade coffee with organic raw brown sugar from Wholesome Sweeteners Inc.
Fair Trade is a movement that was conceived in the 1960s by a small number of European activists who were concerned about the plight of poverty-stricken farmers in Third World countries whose coffee beans, tea leaves and chocolate are the source of tremendous wealth for the traders and merchants who deal in these commodities. The activists had a simple idea: Offer farmers a minimum price that assures that they can cover all of the costs necessary for sustainable production. In addition to the product price, Fair Trade farmers receive a premium that goes to investment in social, environmental or development projects such as health care or education. The product receives independent certification if it has met the Fair Trade standards, and a stamp that lets consumers know this.
The movement was rather limited until 1988, when a Dutch Christian development agency, Solidaridad, introduced the first Fair Trade label coffee, Max Havelaar, to Dutch supermarkets. The idea of marketing Fair Trade products through the mainstream quickly spread through Europe and then to the United States. Today sales of Fair Trade Certified™ products are at an all-time high, totaling $170 million in 2010, according to Fair Trade USA. More than 700 companies offer more than 9,000 Fair Trade Certified products, and sales data indicate that sales are increasing at a faster rate in mainstream retail outlets than in natural and specialty grocers.
Fair Trade USA audits and certifies transactions between U.S. companies that offer Fair Trade Certified products and their international suppliers to guarantee compliance with Fair Trade principles. They make sure that democratically organized farmer groups receive a guaranteed minimum floor price for their goods, plus an additional premium for certified organic products. These organizations are also eligible for pre-harvest credit. To be certified, Fair Trade USA must see that workers on Fair Trade farms have safe working conditions and living wages, that they enjoy freedom of association, and that there is no forced child labor. The farming methods used must promote environmental sustainability and protect farmers' health; harmful agrochemicals and GMOs are prohibited.
With Fair Trade there are no middlemen between the farmers and the international buyers, and farmers become empowered to develop a business capacity. They feel the benefits of Fair Trade very quickly. Their income can triple once they begin receiving the guaranteed price, allowing them to send their kids to school and make improvements that impact the environment.
Reinvesting in the community
Fair Trade farmers and farm workers receive premiums that they can invest in social and business development projects, which they decide upon in a democratic fashion. These include scholarship programs, health care, quality improvement, social empowerment trainings and organic certification. Environmental standards are a crucial part of the Fair Trade equation. A worker's living and working conditions cannot be improved without a clean and healthy environment. In addition to banning GMOs and restricting the use of pesticides and fertilizers, Fair Trade environmental standards include protecting water resources and natural vegetation areas, promoting agricultural diversification, erosion control and no slash and burn, and requiring proper management of waster, water and energy. Fair Trade organizations also train farmers in organic farming so that they can command a higher price for their organic produce. Now nearly half of the Fair Trade products sold in the United States are organic.
More and more large corporations are offering Fair Trade products. Ben & Jerry's has made a commitment to use 100 percent Fair Trade ingredients in their ice creams by 2013, and is already using Fair Trade vanilla, chocolate and coffee. Chain coffee companies and restaurants like Starbucks, Peets, Seattle's Best, Caribou, Dunkin' Donuts, Indigo Coffee, Tully's and Noah's Bagels are all selling Fair Trade blends. As a consumer, you need to ask for it. Fair Trade coffee, chocolate, and tea, and in some cases bananas are available from retailers like Sam's Club, Walmart, Safeway, Target and Costco and others (you can find a list on the Fair Trade USA Website ). Whole Foods has been working with Haitian farmers who suffered devastation from the earthquake to help them regain their Fair Trade certification and is launching a Haitian Fair Trade mango initiative later this month.
A unique type of certification
Whereas other certification labels deal with environmental protection and tracing the origins of a product, Fair Trade is the only accredited ethical certification program. It's all about tackling poverty through the empowerment of producers. Unsurprisingly, consumers respond positively to ethical labeling. They like knowing that the products they buy were produced in a socially responsible manner. According to a recent study commissioned by Fair Trade USA with GlobeScan, a third of U.S. consumers are aware of Fair Trade Certified (a fourfold increase in the last five years), and 93 percent of these consumers believe that seeing the Fair Trade Certified label positively affects their perception of the brand. Driving back to Los Angeles from Anaheim, I thought about all those committed young people I'd met who are working so hard and impacting the lives of poor farmers and their families with every scoop of ice cream and pound of coffee, quinoa and chocolate they sell. I felt more hopeful about the world than I've felt in a long time. If only all social change could come in a chocolate delivery system or a cup of espresso.