The Toughest Fair Trade Nut to Crack
Enter Email

 Watch the Video


John Bowes

September 1, 2011


Sales of fair trade products in the United States have been booming.  According to the Fair Trade Labelling Organizations International  (FLO), they amounted to $1.2 billion last year – quadruple the figure in 2004. This is a truly staggering rate of growth.

Fair trade practices grew out of the concerns of a small number of activists for poverty-stricken farmers in the global south. These pioneers sought to assure that producers would be given better market access and fair prices for their goods. As important and well-intentioned as these people were, a fundamental sea change was required for their products to have a material impact on the marketplace.

Max Havelaar, a Dutch-Christian development agency, introduced the first fair trade label. They paid producers a fair price for their crops and issued independent certification allowing the goods to be sold to supermarkets for the first time. This idea was replicated across Europe and North America, and its success led to the establishment of FLO in 1997. In the U.S., Transfair is the formal labelling authority and it has embarked on a drive to bring fair trade benefits to millions in the developing world. Today, the United Kingdom is the only nation on Earth with a bigger market than the U.S. for fair trade products.

But let’s offer a little perspective. The United States has a population in excess of 300 million people. It is one of the biggest nations in the world. You don’t need a post grad in math to recognize that its per capita consumption of fair trade products is less than a fifth of that in the U.K. — a country with just 62 million people. Of all the nations in the northern hemisphere recorded by FLO, only Italy, Spain, Estonia and the Czech Republic have a lower rate of fair trade per capita consumption than the U.S.

Why is Fair Trade doing so badly in America?

It has been argued that the culture’s self-centered political and emotional isolationism is the culprit, banded together with its commitment to a capitalist market economy, one which drives the pursuit of personal wealth at the expense of an empathetic response to global economic and social problems.

This kind of thinking is given superficial credence by Americans’ apparent reluctance to visit different places and experience different cultures. Almost 50 million Brits have passports; about 83 percent of the population. So we are astonished to read that only 21 percent  of U.S. citizens possess a passport. Does this lack of exposure to foreign peoples lend itself to a culture of isolationism?

Perhaps, but any contention that Americans lack heart is belied by their record on charitable donations; giving represents about 1.7 percent of gross domestic product; about twice the level of Canada and the U.K.

Perhaps the fundamental problem is leadership. In the U.K., the Fairtrade Foundation provides determined and focused leadership for the whole fair trade sector. In the U.S., by contrast, Transfair appears to be at almost constant loggerheads with the alternative trading organizations who were the original pioneers of the movement.

The internal debate is split into the transformer view, associated with the alternative trading organizations, and the reformer view, associated with Transfair. The former group wants to transform the trading system by creating holistic partnerships linking the small farmer to the consumer. The reformers have a more incremental approach and seek to operate within established trading frameworks; they have happily concluded deals with multinational companies such as Starbucks and Dole, entities which many in the fair trade movement associate with just the abuses their current efforts are designed to address.

These concerns are shared by many in the U.K. When Nestle, the bette noir of the U.K. ethical movement, incorporated the Fairtrade mark on its Partners Blend coffee, plenty of dissenting voices saw it as a grotesque act of cynicism. But in the U.K. the emphasis has been on partnership and co-operation. As a result the movement has been able to offer a consistent and coordinated message. The Fairtrade mark is now almost ubiquitous, and recognized by more than 70 percent of British adults. Retail sales have passed the 1-billion pound ($1.6 billion) mark.

Now it’s time for the U.S. to flex its fair trade muscle. Success in the largest consumer market on Earth is essential to change inequitable global trading practices. Fair trade has come a long way in a relatively short period, but its progress is still embryonic. Of all of the challenges it faces going forward, the United States is the toughest nut to crack.

John Bowes is editor of the recently released book The Fair Trade Revolution and chairman of Twin, a pioneering producer-owned membership organization dedicated to developing fair trade supply chains for coffee, nuts, cocoa, and sugar. He previously worked for the Co-operative Group, one of the top five U.K. retailers, where he was responsible for many of their ground-breaking initiatives on fair trade.


Fair Trade for Farmers and Soil

Plowing field with oxen

Small-scale organic farming and regenerative agricultural practices combat our climate crisis and help feed the world. Here are just a few of the ways that fair trade producers and their brand partners are collaborating to grow ethical supply chains through regenerative organic agricultural methods, and producing goods that we can all feel good about. This […]

The Hidden History Made at Sakuma Brothers Farms

Picking blueberries: Copyright David Bacon

History was made on September 12, 2016 with the election of Familias Unidas por la Justicia to be the union representing berry pickers at Sakuma Brothers Farms in Washington state. Three perspectives on what that means for farmworkers, farmers, and our food system. History was made on September 12, 2016 with the election of Familias […]

Food Waste, Hunger and Climate Change

Food Wastage Footprint and Climate Change, Rome FAQ

As a child, you likely heard some variation of the cliché, “Eat all your food; there are starving people in the world.” While hunger remains one of humanity’s greatest challenges, the underlying causes are not as clear as one might think. Written by Ryan Zinn As a child, you likely heard some variation of the […]

Fair Cannabis?


For decades, workers have flocked to Northern California and Southern Oregon to work the fall cannabis harvest. Some are migrants on their seasonal tour. Others are driven by an interest in cannabis culture, or by the promise of lucrative pay. While some “trimmers” have had pleasant, safe and profitable experiences, many have not. Written by […]

Sustainable Public Procurement:

Sustainable Public Procurement

An Understated and Effective Way to Grow Fair Trade Sales of fair trade products have grown in leaps and bounds, especially in Europe. While this growth is encouraging, supply from producers in the Global South is well ahead of demand from consumers in the North. How do we close this gap? Here’s a practical guide […]

Trading Down: How Unfair Trade Hurts Farmers

United States farm incomes sharply declined in 2016 for the third year in a row. Prices for wheat and corn are currently at ten-year lows, and in many cases U.S. farmers are paid below the cost of production for what they produce. While these low prices hurt U.S. farmers, when the crops are exported by […]

Grow Ahead: Crowdfunding Climate Resilience

Fair World Project is launching Grow Ahead, an online crowdfunding platform. For the first time, individual consumers can forge an intimate link with front-line farmer groups, directly funding farmer initiatives and supporting the global effort to address climate change on the farm. Industrial agriculture and food production is a major contributor to climate change, and […]

Fair Cities


    What will the just economy of the future look like? We asked for your suggestions for cities across North America that are living examples of fair trade values in action. Is yours on the list? MINNEAPOLIS/ST PAUL, Minnesota Minneapolis-St. Paul is a hotbed of fair trade activity. For decades now, local nonprofits like the […]

It’s Time for Wages With Dignity


by Ryan Johnson Quietly, hidden behind the headlines that feature presidential candidates bemoaning the state of our country and our economy, voters in several states are no longer waiting on politicians. They’re taking matters into their own hands and launching minimum wage ballot initiatives to create the economic change people sorely need. The impetus for […]

The Business Case for Raising the Minimum Wage


by David Bronner At Dr. Bronner’s, the company I run with my family, we believe that we can only prosper in the long run if we contribute to the prosperity of society as a whole. It’s why we strive to compensate all our staff fairly, cap executive compensation at five times the lowest paid position, […]