Guest blogger Eva Cruz, Owner and President at FairHarvest Foods , shares her story of starting a Fair Trade specialty food company and what she has learned about Fair Trade over the years.
Growing up in the Dominican Republic, I never heard about Fair Trade. Granted, my upbringing was as removed from the producers of the food I ate as in any typical suburban household in the U.S. It was not until arriving in the U.S. and finding Fair Trade crafts at local stores that I even heard the term and the meaning attributed to it. At that time, for me, Fair Trade was about purchasing crafts from organizations like Oxfam.
Over time, my personal experience with Fair Trade expanded as a consumer of coffee, tea, and chocolate, and it made me feel good to think that, at the very least, I was not supporting the exploitation of the people and communities that grew and harvested these products. Searching for evidence or data about what benefits Fair Trade brings to those communities never occurred to me – at least seriously enough to do the research – until I started planning a business in the specialty food industry.
Over a period of two years, I visited several organic farms, plantations and agricultural areas in the Dominican Republic and attended conferences on Fair Trade in the U.S. I also had the opportunity to learn about the poor wages paid in the “free-trade” zones in Latin America, which have received significant government incentives for decades.
Through this period of learning and awareness, I was surprised at the contrasting perspectives among Fair Trade supporters: one side deeply opposed to the notion that a profit-making enterprise could also be true to Fair Trade values, while others advocated for making Fair Trade products available to as many consumers as possible by working with large corporations.
Now, as a small business owner in the specialty food industry, I have come to realize how challenging it is to adhere to a commitment to Fair Trade. Small-scale food manufacturers, like myself, have to rely on larger-scale importers that agree to sell to us. That translates into high production costs and the risk of pricing being too high. That experience brought me back to the discussion about whether Fair Trade is being co-opted by large corporations.
Putting aside, for a moment, the mistrust for the motives of large corporations, the central question should really be: What will benefit the small-scale producer? Basic rules of business, such as economies of scale and competition, still apply, and large corporations and importers have the capabilities to buy more, enter into direct, mutually beneficial agreements with the producers, and still price competitively. Small companies like mine have to then determine if they can offer a product made with Fair Trade ingredients that can compete, after considering that our costs will be higher.
If we are truly committed to Fair Trade, then what matters is the positive impact on the producer side. Some well-intentioned people may be narrowly focused on the concept of a fair wage based on dollars per day. However, benchmarks about a living wage are ridiculously low, as they seem to focus on a basic subsistence. Fair Trade should not just be about meeting the basic daily necessities, but about the improvement of producers’ communities. Better communication systems, access to clinics and education, are what will make these communities thrive so that they will not leave and move to the outskirts of a city, as millions do.
We, as part of the supply chain, have a responsibility to know what the stories are behind the men and women that grow our food supply. What are their aspirations, beyond living day to day with a wage that keeps them in poverty? At the same time, we have to make sure that corporations are not using the term Fair Trade just because they pay marginally better than other multinationals, claiming some high road analogous to greenwashing. It is important for small producers to be seen as partners that want to prosper and improve their standards of living, rather than as just one step in the supply chain. Fair Trade, whether you call it a social movement or an economic model, still has plenty of opportunities to explore, whether it is the inclusion of new categories, countries, or implementation models. However, despite different views on how to achieve its goals, the vision to make international trade equitable and fair, benefiting all parties involved, is the unifying force behind Fair Trade and keeps me looking towards a fair future that is good for consumers, buyers and the women and men who grow our food.
Eva Cruz is the owner and President at FairHarvest Foods in Charlotte, North Carolina. FairHarvest Foods  is a small, specialty food producer whose mission is to create all natural and flavorful sauces and condiments inspired by the rich variety of fruits, spices and specialty ingredients that have been enjoyed for generations by cultures around the world. At the core of our company values, there is a commitment to Fair Trade and sustainable principles, as well as to the uncompromising use of high-quality all-natural and organic ingredients. For more info visit www.fairharvestfoods.com