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Secret Shopper: What does fair trade really mean?Secret Shopper: What does fair trade really mean?

With more than one fair trade label on the market, which one should consumers trust? NFM goes undercover to investigate.

NFM Staff

November 27, 2013

2 Min Read
Secret Shopper: What does fair trade really mean?

Natural Foods Merchandiser: What does fair trade really mean?

Store: It means the farmers who grew those coffee beans you’re holding were paid fairly and worked in decent conditions. The program also helps develop impoverished nations.

NFM: Is there only one program? I’ve seen a few fair-trade seals—do they mean different things?

Store: As far as I know, all of the fair-trade groups have good reputations. I haven’t heard any complaints.

How did this retailer do?

Our expert educator: Jeff Goldman, executive director of Fair Trade Resource Network

The retailer is right: Fair trade gives marginalized workers a better deal compared with business as usual and ensures sustainable practices. And yes, the seals all mean something positive. But there are significant differences, which are a bit complicated. Unlike other seals, Fair for Life requires fair practices at U.S.-based wholesalers and manufacturers, not just for producers in poor countries. The Fairtrade International system is 50 percent owned and governed by producers, whereas other systems have minor or no producer ownership.

There aren’t really differences in growing methods, except that Fair Trade USA now allows hired workers on plantations owned by corporations with mostly non-fair-trade practices, while Fairtrade International and Fairtrade America do not.

The programs also differ in how much fair-trade content they require in multi-ingredient products. Fairtrade International and Fair for Life mandate that all ingredients commercially available as fair trade must be fair trade, while Fair Trade USA doesn’t. For its front-panel seal, Fair for Life requires at least 80 percent fair-trade content for agricultural products and 50 percent for body care and other goods. Fair Trade USA and Fairtrade International require 20 percent for all multi-ingredient products with the label.

To garner consumer confidence, the major programs participate in voluntary “best practices” associations, such as ISO and ISEAL. Fair-trade certifiers are also checked by producers and advocates.

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