Clients Rally in Support of Fair Trade USA


Major food manufacturers that heavily promote fair trade lines rallied this week in support of innovations that led Fair Trade USA to split from its European-based counterpart.

Twenty-five executives, including Whole Foods co-founder and CEO John Mackey and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters President & CEO Larry Blanford signed an open letter of support along with labor leaders that include Arturo Rodriguez, President, United Farm Workers of America and micro-fund lender Premal Shah, President, and Art of Tea operations manager Shamir Merino.

“Fair Trade in the United States stands at a crossroads… it is time to innovate the model for greater impact,” reads the letter, “Millions of farmers and workers are currently excluded from Fair Trade Certification.”

“We must evolve the historic framework so that all farmers and workers in all product categories have access to the benefits from Fair Trade certification.

“Fair Trade for All is a compelling call to action that we embrace. We will work with Fair Trade USA to strengthen the movement and make this bold vision a reality,” the letter concludes.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, the largest purchaser of Fair Trade Certified™ coffee in the world writes that “ultimately, our primary support is for coffee growing farmers and their families and helping them improve their quality of life. We hope the stakeholders in fair trade can find common ground and hope we can all work together to keep the fair trade movement growing and flourishing.”

GMCR Director of Public Relations Sandy Yusen adds that “we value our relationships with both Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade International.  In the U.S., we plan to continue the relationship we have had with Fair Trade USA since we first partnered with them in 2000 to certify our fair trade coffees.  We also intend to continue purchasing and distributing fair trade coffee in Canada, certified by Fairtrade Canada.”

Blanford‘s signature "represents the company's support of Fair Trade USA's efforts to strengthen support of fair trade co-operatives, to innovate and expand the fair trade model to allow more farmers and workers to benefit, and to increase consumer engagement with fair trade," writes Yusen who points out that GMCR purchased 26 million pounds of Fair Trade Certified™ coffee last year and delivered more than $9.8 million in community development funds to coffee farmers in the past decade.

“Our take is that a lot of voices is a good thing,” says Mary Jo Cook, Vice President of Business Development and Marketing at FTUSA. “We are more interested in how you can use trade as a way to alleviate poverty in ways that are economically, environmentally and socially sustainable,” says Cook.

Fairtrade says that because workers on coffee plantations are largely transient, it is difficult to ensure benefits will reach them by using standards designed for products where workers are more permanent, such as tea.

“With a co-op, the standards are only a starting point and the benefits can be both profound and far-reaching,” says Michael Zelmer, spokesperson for Fairtrade Canada.

“There is a strong sense of accountability to producers within the Fairtrade certification system, not the least because they are well-situated to know what works and what doesn't. Producers have been consistent in their opposition to opening coffee, cocoa, and sugar to plantations, and their opposition has been universal, including from producer networks who count plantations among their members,” says Zelmer.

“We are not abandoning co-operatives and we are not rushing to open up the supply chain. We are being cautious. Our pilot program involves 10-20 producer groups who are not in cooperatives over the next two years,” says Cook. “At the micro level we will study how farm workers benefit, how to apply Fair Trade to estates. At the macro level, our objective is to do more Fair Trade overall by sourcing product from cooperatives and estates and non-affiliated small holders.”

“Right now a roaster using two-thirds coffee from a cooperative and one third from an estate would not quality for Fairtrade label at all,” she says. Under its new multi-ingredient program, products containing as little as 25 percent Fair Trade Certified™ product can be labeled Fair Trade®.

Fairtrade International insists that if a Fair Trade Certified™ product is available commercially you have to source that in mixed-ingredient products. FTUSA is not as rigid, a position that has drawn criticism from the Organic Consumer Association’s Fair World Project which pointed out that under the FTUSA rules a chocolate bar made with Fair Trade Certified™ sugar might display their label without a smidgen of Fair Trade Certified™ cocoa.

“We hear your concerns, loud and clear, and we take them very seriously,” FTUSA wrote in an open letter to Fair World Project. See: Fair Trade USA Releases Draft Farm Worker Standard.

“If it turns out we are crushing cooperatives, we would have to adjust our policy,” says Cook. “It is not our intent to create a disadvantage for cooperatives.”

In Both Camps

In deciding to partner with both Fairtrade and Fair Trade USA, GMCR is an example of the likely outcome for manufacturers that produce fair trade products in different countries. Any grower that obtains a fair trade certification can export to multiple countries and retain the fair trade chain of custody essential to retailers and the consuming public.

In the United States, FTUSA partners that are end users would pay the fair trade premium on goods sold in the country. Fairtrade International would pay the premium based on sales in countries such as Canada where fair trade remains affiliated with the European-based organization.

In neither instance does the grower receive a premium based on what the retailer charges. The fair trade premium is merely a base. Wholesale buyers determine the price they wish to pay whether dealing with a cooperative, estate or via direct trade.

“If you are a cooperative and meet the Fairtrade International standards you can obtain a certificate that will be accepted by Fair Trade USA,” explains Cook. “If you cannot meet the standard (because you are a non-affiliated small holder or a plantation, for example) Emeryville, Calif.-based Scientific Certification Services (SCS) will audit the farm and certify using the same criteria for operations,” she says.

“In the U.S. manufacturers can stay with the ‘bucket boy’ label or our new mark,” says Cook. Outside the U.S. Fairtrade International only recognizes its own logo.

Eliminating inconsistencies

Fairtrade International has for years certified large estates and independent farms and non-affiliated small holders in tea and sugar and cacao. The heated discussions following FTUSA’s split with Fairtrade International are largely fueled by coffee cooperatives.

Unlike tea gardens, 70 percent of the world’s coffee is produced by small producers and family farms.

“We find no justification for allowing estate workers in tea and excluding them in coffee,” says Cook.

“That is a fundamental difference. People are excited to have a choice beyond FLO. Rather than protecting entrenched interests, we can move to a model that enables more people in more categories to get the best of fair trade.”

“Adjusting the certification model to include coffee plantations has been looked at before, and the evidence suggests it's not particularly sensible if the intent is to further the goals of Fair Trade, which includes providing effective support for workers,” says Michael Zelmer, spokesman for Fairtrade Canada.

Coffee is a logical exception as the majority of the workforce on most coffee plantations is highly transient. This makes it very difficult to ensure that the benefits of Fairtrade certification reach workers, explains Zelmer.

“This is particularly true when it comes to the Fairtrade premium, a key development tool that requires some degree of worker organization. Strip these features out, and you have a pale imitation of Fair Trade that will do little to address poverty.”

Assisting co-operatives “is unequivocally Fair Trade at its best, and we still have a long way to go to reach the potential of co-ops already in Fair Trade let alone those that aren't, he says. “From a perspective of community development, there is virtually no comparison between what can be achieved through a democratic co-operative of small-scale farmers and a coffee plantation,” says Zelmer.

Dan Bolton

About Dan Bolton

Dan Bolton edits STiR Tea & Coffee Industry International. He was formerly editor and publisher of World Tea News and former editor and publisher of Tea Magazine and former editor-in-chief of Specialty Coffee Retailer. He is a beverage retail consultant and frequent speaker at industry seminars and conferences. His work has appeared in many beverage publications. He was a newspaper reporter and editor for 20 years prior to his career in magazines. Dan is the founding editor of Natural Food magazine and has led six publishing ventures since 1995. He lives in Winnipeg, Canada.