What Do Fair Trade Consumers Expect?

Lately we have been talking a lot about the need for more transparency in fair trade and eco-social certification systems. One of the specific policies we have advocated for certifiers to adopt is requiring brands to disclose the actual percentage of fair trade ingredients on multi-ingredient labels.

Whenever weighing the potential merits of any initiative, we always consider the impact on small-scale farmers, who should always benefit from fair trade and eco-social programs, and whether it will resonate with consumers, who should be informed and empowered.

So we want to hear from you about your expectations as a fair trade consumer.

But first, let’s take a look at some terms and ideas.

Commercial availability

When fair trade labels first appeared on the scene in the 1990s, the general consensus was that for a product to be labeled as fair trade all ingredients needed to be fair trade if they were available through a fair trade supply chain. So in granola bar, for example, the chocolate chips, sugar, vanilla, and almonds would need to be certified, but the oats would not since oats are not available as fair trade. As fair trade as evolved, this long-held practice, known as commercial availability, has been challenged.  In some respects, this may benefit some small-scale producers since brands would be able to buy a high-profile ingredient such as chocolate under fair trade terms, allowing more fair trade cocoa farmers to thrive, even if the brand was not committed to sourcing all ingredients fairly, It also allows some flexibility for committed fair traders who may choose to support small-scale domestic farmers for some ingredients, or build a relationship with a farmer co-op that chooses not to go through the certification process.  On the other hand, dropping commercial availability allows for an entry point for an otherwise unethical brand seeking to enhance their image by using one certified ingredient in one product and gaining good will with the use of a fair trade or eco-social seal on that product while ingredients that could be sourced in fair trade relationship are not due to lack of commitment by the brand.

Split Operation

This is a term sometimes applied to a farm or business that has a line of fair trade products and a line of convention, often the same product. For example, Green Mountain is the biggest fair trade coffee roaster by volume, but only about a third of their coffee is fair trade while the rest is conventional, even though there is enough fair trade coffee available for them to purchase. This can be a problem because in general there are no safe-guards to prevent a company from buying a certain amount of an ingredient under fair trade terms to fulfill consumer demand but then turning around and asking the very same farmers to sell additional product that will not be labeled fair trade at a discount to offset their costs of purchasing some under fair trade terms. This is also a concern with large-scale farms that may grow both conventional and certified commodities.

Voluntary Third-Party Certification

Fair trade and eco-social labels are voluntary, third-party certifications. That means that companies and suppliers must opt-in to the program and agree to meet standards set by a program who will send an auditor out to verify compliance. There are many reasons that a company might opt in to such a program. In the best case, they are truly committed to acting ethically and wish an external, neutral party to hold them accountable.  But some companies may be seeking to appear legitimate by acquiring certification for a limited number of ingredients or products that they can point to. Since the programs are voluntary, there are not regulated by governments and certification programs have the ability to choose whether to hold a high bar for ethical action or to bend rules to suit companies seeking to use a label.

Brand Loyalty

We all have our favorite brands and stick with them for many reasons including quality, image, and habit among others. When it comes to fair trade, brand loyalty can also mean we trust a brand to act ethically even if they have not been audited by a third party. This could mean trusting that a fair trade coffee roaster is buying from small-scale farmer cooperatives under fair trade terms even if there is no fair trade logo. It could also mean trusting that even if only 20% of ingredients in a fair trade tea drink are certified, that the other 80% are purchased under fair and not exploitive conditions. Consumer trust can be gained in many ways, for example publishing self-assessments and transparently releasing information about ingredient sourcing. Many brands act ethically and are worthy of our trust. Some, however, may use loyalty based on tangible factors such as taste or price to convince customers they are also worthy of trust in less visible areas such as ethics.

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