Fair Trade USA New Labeling Policy for Multi-Ingredient Products Is Harmful to the Fair Trade Movement

Alter Eco Fair Trade Quinoa Chocolate BarAsk most ethically-minded shoppers whether a chocolate bar bearing a fair trade label on the front contains mostly fair trade ingredients and they would probably say yes. Chocolate bars have ingredients like cocoa and sugar and vanilla and one would expect that if a company cared to have one ingredient fair trade, they would of course want them all fair trade. Take for example Equal Exchange’s milk chocolate mini with 71% fair trade ingredients.  And that is the milk chocolate bar, the dark chocolate mini is 100% fair trade. Alter Eco makes a dark chocolate quinoa crunch bar that is also 100% fair trade.

But unfortunately this is not always the case. Under Fair Trade USA’s new labeling policy, they will allow their fair trade seal to appear in a prominent position on the front packaging of chocolate bars that have fair trade cocoa and no other fair trade ingredients. Currently brands are required to purchase as fair trade all ingredients available as such to use the seal in this way. Some milk chocolate bars are mostly milk and sugar, with cocoa as little as 32% of the total ingredients. Under the changed policy, the total percentage of fair trade ingredients may be just that same 32%. That means that a brand that buys cheap sugar through an exploitative supply chain, uses artificial vanilla flavor bought through a chemical company rather than a fair trade agricultural supply chain, and conventional milk powder will get to use the same fair trade seal as brands like Equal Exchange and Alter Eco who use 70-100% fair trade ingredients.

And although this policy change is still listed as being in draft form and open for feedback, it appears Fair Trade USA has always had this policy, at least unofficially, as in these chocolate chips with fair trade cocoa but not fair trade sugar or vanilla, and using the older Fair Trade USA logo.

SunSpire 42% Fair Trade certified cacaoSunSpire 42% certified cacao - back label

It is not just chocolate. In this iced tea example, tea is the very last ingredient, even though there is a fair trade label on the front.

Steaz TeaFair Trade USA argues that their new policy of allowing companies to use only certified cocoa, tea, or coffee allows brands who currently use no fair trade to have an entry point and to benefit farmers by opening up new markets. In our most recent publication, Nasser Abufarha writes that there is room in the movement for companies that are not fully committed to fair trade, but they should not be allowed to dictate the movement. Though Nasser is an independent contributor, his articulation in this case does reflect the view of Fair World Project also. Opening up markets for fair trade producers is important, as they are the core of the movement and the most important recipients of the benefits of fair trade. However, multinational companies who open new markets for a limited segment of producers should not be allowed to dictate the terms, especially at the expense of those committed brands like Equal Exchange and Alter Eco cited above who have made a full commitment to transforming trade and are leaders in the movement. If they need to compete against less expensive “fair trade” products, they face unfair competition. And if too many unknowing consumers choose the bars with fewer fair trade ingredients, that could in turn impact the farmers who supply them, including farmers of ingredients like fair trade quinoa and vanilla that are not included in the bars with only fair trade cocoa.

Fair World Project has made several recommendations for how Fair Trade USA can change its labeling policy to allow for the entry of new companies without creating unfair competition and consumer confusion in the market.

One is to disclose the percentage of total fair trade ingredients on the packaging in a place where a consumer would see it at the same time as they see the fair trade logo. This is the most clear way to communicate quickly and effectively to consumers the difference between products that contain a small percentage of fair trade ingredients and those that are majority or fully fair trade. The percentage disclosure should be required especially as information accompanying a front-panel seal, but should also apply to multi-ingredient products containing minimal fair trade ingredients such that a front-panel seal is not used. This should be an industry standard.

Another recommendation is to increase the threshold from 20% to 50% total fair trade ingredients before the fair trade seal can appear on the front panel. If they did this, fair trade cocoa in a chocolate bar such as in the example above would be designated as fair trade in the ingredient list, giving credit to brands who use fair trade cocoa, but the seal would not appear on the front of the packaging where it is likely to confuse or even deceive consumers and create a disadvantage for truly committed brands. Ideally the total percentage of fair trade ingredients would still be disclosed, but raising the threshold requirement even alone would go a long way to improving clarity while allowing an entry point for brands new to fair trade, and would be more in line with the policy requirements of IMO’s Fair for Life.

So far Fair Trade USA has not taken these recommendations. The current proposed change would drop the requirement that all ingredients that are available as fair trade be certified as fair trade in a multi-ingredient product. The proposal does not include mitigating changes like raising the threshold to at least 50% for the use of a fair trade seal on the front panel and requiring disclosure of the percentage of total fair trade ingredients. Therefore this change undermines the movement for transformative trade and caters to companies who want to receive an advantage in the marketplace while making a minimum investment in fair trade supply chains and in producers.

5 thoughts on “Fair Trade USA New Labeling Policy for Multi-Ingredient Products Is Harmful to the Fair Trade Movement

  1. When I buy Fair Trade I want to know the profits go primarily to small farmers, to the indigenous workers, who make it. I want to know that my money is not slipping into the pocket of some larger corporation through loophole words or invisible behind the scenes agreements. If I can’t trust the Fair Trade label to be honest, then I’d rather skip the export products and stick with foods I buy from small local farmers and artisans instead. At least then I KNOW WITHOUT DOUBT that my money is supporting the person who cares enough to create food in harmony with nature Vs despite nature or in ways that destroy it and the people who depend on it for survivial. For me, buying Fair Trade is one of the ways I have to support the health and welfare of small farmers and food artisans everywhere, NOT the already bulging profits of corporations who care nothing about the quality of the food or the integrity of the food growing culture.

  2. As a former intern from their early days it really saddens me the way they have been watering down their certification for multi-ingredient products. Many of the same arguments in this article also apply to personal care products they certify, some of which have as little as 5% Fair Trade ingredients. I know the head of Fair Trade USA, and I know he is sincerely passionate about Fair Trade, but I think it’s a case of they can’t see the forest for the trees. They are so focused on producers they have lost site of the perspective of the consumers who need to trust the integrity of their certification. They really don’t get that the certification is being watered down and people are losing trust in it. And while they may be helping more producers right now, as fewer and fewer consumers trust the certification their ability to help producers is going to be diminished. It’s a bad move in the long term.

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