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Wading Through the Sea of Fair Trade Standards

When we take a look at what it means to have Concern for the Community (Cooperative Principle #7), what “community” are we talking about? Our Co-opis rooted in meeting the needs of our Owners, and we carry products based on what you want. It is also the Co-op’s commitment, as per the seven Cooperative Principles, to support producer communities who provide for us, and in turn provide for you, so that they are also provided safe, clean, humane and equitable working conditions and paid well for their efforts. Purchasing products that follow the fair trade model is one way to gauge how we value the people who make the bounty we bring home to our families possible.


Purchasing something that supports those values and commitments can be complicated, as there is a variety of ways companies can show how they care for their producers, and not all criteria for fairly traded products are the same or as stringent. Here’s some information about what to look for while you read the labels on what you choose to buy.


Sustainability Claims
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has a portal on their website dedicated to “sustainability claims,” or branding terms and labels placed on products and services that incorporate certain sustainability practices into the production, processing, manufacturing, and export of their products. Fair trade is one of the ways that companies can tell you what they care about when they are making things to sell to you. Sometimes companies assess their sustainability on their own, and sometimes companies will pay a private party to provide a specific label indicating that their company satisfies or exceeds certain criteria. None of the standards out there address an identical set of issues or give equal emphasis to definitions of quality, and that can make your shopping choices difficult.


Fair Trade Model
Companies that practice fair trade value all the participants on the trade chain, and strive to ensure that all stakeholders, including you (the consumer) and the small farmer, are empowered as active participants in setting the priorities for the global marketplace. Generally, product pricing is based on the cost of sustainable production and providing an equitable income that supports the true cost of living in developing regions where products you enjoy are made. The concept is simple: everyone who participates in making the goods that enrich our lives deserves to be paid as best as possible for their efforts so that they, too, can lead healthy, quality lives. Adherence to fair trade practices is voluntary and requires constant engagement and evaluation. UNCTAD outlines three objectives of the fair trade model: “sustainable development with a social-economic emphasis, fair access to markets with a focus on sustainable production and improved living conditions for small scale producers and farmers, and professionalism of processes in order to improve quality and the value of the product.” To make the claim that a product is fair trade, a company must be able to trace and transparently indicate their flow of goods and finances, comply with both national labor laws and international labor conventions, and meet basic environmental standards relating to soil and water management, energy and chemical usage, and promotion of biodiversity.


Value in the Supply Chain
What creates value for everyone in the supply chain? How do we know what we are paying for promotes economic equity, sustainability, and quality of life? Embracing fair trade means that a company gives their stakeholders opportunity for participatory decision-making; supports the right to organize labor; has transparent practices; provides better work conditions free of discrimination; ensures access to fair housing, water, social services, and education; provides job safety training; monitors environmental practices; promotes consumer awareness and engagement with their producers; and assesses all of these practices either independently or via third-party to ensure fair trade standards are met annually. Also noteworthy: many companies that make fair trade claims and commit to fair trade practices are cooperatives themselves and/or support democratically controlled/cooperative producers. Producers, manufacturers, importers and exporters, retailers, and specific products can all make fair trade claims. Common products you may see at the Co-op bearing fair trade claims include coffee, cocoa, sugar, tea, bananas, avocados, pineapples, mangoes, nuts, fruit juices, cotton, and palm oil. Some products may also have fair trade labeling due to the use of a certain amount of fair trade ingredients.  


Third-Party Certifications
Third-party fair trade certifications can be confusing, and much of that stems from controversy within the last decade over who can be included in fair trade certification. In this round-up of the symbols and certifications you might find on a product label, we attempt to clarify some of the distinctions.


Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO)
Since 1997, FLO has represented the world’s largest and most recognized fair trade system. Around the world there are over 27,000 products bearing the “Fairtrade Mark.” FLOCERT is the independent certifier the FLO uses to ensure producer compliance with FLO’s internationally agreed upon standards. The standards are based in common principles such as social development: allowing producers to bring products to market, requiring access to democratic decision-making and participation, social rights and security for workers, and freedom of workforce association; economic development: paying set amounts to cover both sustainable production and investment in the quality of worker lives, and access to pre-financing to promote development and entrepreneurship; environmental development: promotion of environmentally sound agricultural practices and providing higher prices for organic production; and prohibition of forced or child labor. Cooperators and access to organized labor options are also important for this certification. Small producer organizations are required to be comprised of small farms who distribute profits democratically and equally among all the organization’s members. Producers who rely on hired labor are required to allow freedom of association and collective bargaining if the workers so choose as well as equitable working conditions for all workers.


Fair Trade USA (formerly TransFair USA)
Founded in 1998 by the Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy (IATP), Fair Trade USA is the first and largest certifier of fair trade in the United States. In addition to their label, Fair Trade USA also has a Fair Trade Finder social and mobile app to help consumers find their certified products. All of their certifications are rooted in the following principles: empowerment, economic development, social responsibility, and environmental stewardship. Fair Trade USA partners with Scientific Certification Systems (SCS Global Services) to provide certification and compliance assessments. Originally a member of FLO, Fair Trade USA severed ties in 2011 due to conflicting ideas regarding the scalability of the fair trade market share and who can or cannot be certified in fair trade. According to GOOD and the New York Times, Fair Trade USA wanted more fair trade in the US marketplace and resolved to expand the quantity, variety, and size of growers that could become fair trade certified while also reducing the percentage of ingredients that had to be sourced fair trade in order to earn their fair trade label. This, in turn, would allow more companies to be rewarded for their principles and help more consumers participate in the fair trade movement. In order to allow for more large growers and corporations to qualify, Fair Trade USA’s social, economic, and environmental criteria place less emphasis on democratically organized small producers and involvement in cooperatives. After Fair Trade USA left the FLO, Fairtrade America became the US representative for the international certifying body, using the FLO Fairtrade Mark. Products that bear the FLO certification may also certify as Fair Trade USA.


Fair for Life/Institute of Marketecology (IMO)
The Institute for Marketecology has been an international certification body since 1990, and in 2006, they began to include social and fair trade criteria in what is called their “Fair for Life” program. Fair for Life also allows larger growers and producers to be certified, and goes beyond Fair Trade USA’s and Fairtrade America’s standards by incorporating FLO standards, International Labor Organization conventions, and the social criteria for the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements into certification. In addition to adhering to FLO standards, companies either need to be certified to an organic standard or meet specific production benchmarks for water conservation and energy, ecosystem, and waste management. They have around 80 organizations certified worldwide. Fair for Life means “long-term and trusting cooperation between partners, transparent price setting negotiations and prices, including a Fair Trade Premium, that allow for social development of concerned communities.” The fair trade principles are further applied to domestic and regional trade by requiring ethical working conditions across the entire trade chain.


Small Producer Symbol (SPP)
Launched in 2006 by the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Small Fair Trade Producers, the SPP Symbol shows support for the “products and values of small farmers and artisans looking for better exchange conditions and fair trade.” The certifying arm for the SPP is the Foundation of Organized Small Producers, who works with professional entities that independently and reliably certify compliance with the Symbol’s standards seeking participative democracy, self-management, collectivity, solidarity, justice, equity, transparency, trust, plurality, respect for local cultures, dignified living, small-scale production, direct trading, quality, sustainable prices, strong local economies, local added value, respect for mother nature, and respect for health. Currently, 63 producers are certified to label their products with the SPP Symbol.


Fair trade with no label
Some companies trading and distributing fairly produced products don’t display, and may not even seek third party certifications, because the current certifications don’t fully symbolize who they are and what their companies stand for. A symbol can also be misinterpreted to mean that the work that went into receiving the right to bear the symbol is already done even though fair trade is a long-term commitment. These companies would rather tout the transparency of their supply chains and commitment to sustainability right on their websites and packaging so that you know for sure what product you are getting, how it was produced fairly, and who took part in making that product possible. This method forces the company to remain committed to the work of the fair trade movement, so that we do not see a regression in the successes already achieved for the small farmer, for cooperation among producers and sectors, and a diversified marketplace.


How Do I Know For Sure I Am Supporting My Values?
All fair trade businesses, producers, and farmers are more committed to social and environmental sustainability and economic diversity than the average. Deciding to purchase fair trade regardless of who certifies the product makes a positive difference in the global economy. That said, like all product and brand claims, sustainability claims and certifications are not as easy to navigate as they should be. Reading labels is still the consumer’s best practice. Although your Co-op evaluates fair trade claims when considering bringingin a product, reading labels and staying informed is the best way to select products that symbolize your values. Many excellent fair trade producers and products are being featured this month at the Co-op for their jobs well done, be it via meeting the criteria to tout the labels of certain standards, or by just having and displaying great, transparent partnerships and practices all through the supply chain. So read up! Learn about trade, the supply chain, cooperation, and work conditions and find out what all those symbols out there look like. We hope we can continue to help you learn about the various sustainability claims companies can make, and help you decide which ones are right for you and your family’s table.


Special thanks to Equal Exchange’s Lucas Fowler for contributing information for this article.


Don SamuelsenNorthside Animal Hospital

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