Fair Trade: What it is and why you should care.

Luis Escobar Lara and Victor Samuel Galix working at the coffee drying patio at COCAOL, a fair trade coffee producer in Hondu
Luis Escobar Lara and Victor Samuel Galix working at the coffee drying patio at COCAOL, a fair trade coffee producer in Honduras.

While it has been a well-known practice in European markets for years, fair trade is just starting to become a recognized term in America, thanks largely to the American public’s growing interest in the global economy and global human rights issues. Manufacturers of fair trade products and ingredients are required to meet a wide variety of stringent standards for certification, and consumers are giving more consideration to these safeguards as they make purchases. A fair trade seal on a product is an assurance that human rights were a priority in its creation.

Fair trade farmers are guaranteed fair market prices for their crops, and farm workers are guaranteed a living wage. In addition to the monetary benefits, these farming organizations are monitored for a safe work environment, lack of discrimination, the freedom to organize, and strict adherence to child labor laws. Agrochemicals and GMOs are also forbidden.

Fairtrade America, the foremost domestic certifier of fair trade products, monitors crops from the time they sprout on the farm until they land on store shelves. Their seal on a product informs consumers it has been made with ethically-sourced ingredients that have helped sustain the farming communities contributing to our food supply.

Within the Fairtrade America system, more than 1.5 million farmers and farm workers across the Global South are benefiting from these practices. The additional funds are used in whatever manner most benefits the individual farm or farming coop. Money can go into the pockets of each individual, or it can be applied towards achieving organic certification or building a warehouse. Each community has agency to pursue whatever best suits their needs, and this gives them a sense of ownership in the work they do.

In addition to the community-centric programs protecting the safety and dignity of farming communities – and the feel-good effect for consumers when they purchase the products – fair trade also offers manufacturers a long-term, stable, reliable non-linear supply chain. One farming co-op can supply many different manufactures, and vice versa. The fair trade certifier plays matchmaker for companies looking for fair trade ingredients, connecting them with a farm in their supplier chain.

Conversion to using these ingredients can take time as manufacturers connect with fair trade suppliers, but many are finding this worth the effort. While the extremely-committed Ben & Jerry’s uses fair trade ingredients in all of their products whenever they are available, other retailers like Costco, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods have committed to using fair trade ingredients for at least a portion of their products or store brands. Coffee was one of the first products to become a popular fair trade item. Starbucks and Green Mountain Coffee were two corporate pioneers in America, both having used fair trade coffee for a portion of their products for the better part of two decades.

Ben & Jerry’s, the foremost corporate provider of fair trade products in North America, has created a repeatable, scalable fair trade model for other manufacturers to follow in hopes of collaboratively supporting farmers worldwide. “Our customers trust that we will do the right thing,” said Cheryl Pinto, Director of Values Led Sourcing at Ben & Jerry’s. “They like knowing we are enhancing the dignified life of farmers. So many hands touch these ingredients. You can almost feel that hand-to-hand exchange.”

Human rights violations are rampant in the crop-to-counter chain of non-fair trade products. For companies unaware of their supply chain, especially with imported ingredients, the first step toward ethical sourcing is to discover their origin of the ingredients. Increasing concerns over product safety and human rights are leading more and more American consumers to seek fair trade items – and companies that offer them. When purchasing a fair trade product, we can be assured its entire supply chain has adhered to ethical business practices.

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