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Fast Company: Why Fair Trade Imports Rise Even As Buyers Shun Other Eco-Friendly Products
04/27/2011 - 2:43 PM

The Fair Trade stamp of approval has an allure that other eco-friendly products can't match. That's the conclusion we came to after learning that Fair Trade imports of coffee, vanilla, honey, tea, cocoa, sugar, and more have skyrocketed in the past five years--even while sales of "green" household products decline. So what's the Fair Trade secret sauce?

The simple answer is that people are familiar with Fair Trade, a global, organized social movement that ensures workers protect the environment, work in safe conditions, get paid reasonable wages and prices, and receive community development funds. And hearing about those people, like the enterprising banana farmer, pictured above, gets people in the mood to spend. The news about Fair Trade's growing imports comes from Fair Trade USA, the leading third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the U.S.

According to Fair Trade USA, coffee imports (the first Fair Trade USA product) have climbed from 78,000 pounds certified in 1998 to 108 million pounds certified in 2010. Other Fair Trade products have become popular in recent years, too--cocoa saw a 67% growth in imports since 2009, and citrus experienced a 96% increase in growth in 2010. Fair Trade's ever-growing popularity led the organization to start certifying an even wider array of products in 2010, including apparel, vodka, and sports balls (now guaranteed to not be tied together by Chinese political prisoners!).

Not all Fair Trade products are organic--though many of them are--so the program's appeal certainly isn't just about the environment. We have another theory: Fair Trade certifiers are really good about highlighting the human side of the program. The first thing readers see on the Fair Trade USA site is a link to hear about farmers' stories. And the Fair Trade International site is filled with producer stories, like this one:

The Association of Small Producers of Saman and Anexos (APPBOSA) has been Fairtrade certified since the end of 2003. They have used the Fairtrade Premium to construct a cableway to transport their bananas from the trees to the packing stations....Thanks to the cableway, the farmers no longer carry the bunches of bananas on their backs from the tree to the packing station. The cableway takes the strain, improving efficiency and cutting costs. The new system also increases the percentage of non-blemished fruit suitable for export.

After years of being bombarded with stories like this, it's easy to roll your eyes. But human interest stories still pull the heart strings. It's just easier to feel good about buying a farmer- and environment-friendly product when there is a human face behind it. Are you going to spend the extra few cents at the store, or are you going to consign some poor banana farmer to an aching back? Are you really so cruel? Knowing that you're making a difference for a specific village or group of people is a lot easier to comprehend than thinking that you might contribute to some vague planetary future.