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The future looks bright for fair trade

Increased demand from socially conscious consumers is driving fair trade growth, with a definition that goes beyond ethical treatment of workers to environmental sustainability.

Jane Hoback

May 26, 2010

3 Min Read
The future looks bright  for fair trade

Once the domain of coffee and bananas, fair trade has grown to include everything from spices to body scrubs. And as the number of products increases, the definition of fair trade is expanding beyond ethical treatment of workers to environmental sustainability as well.

Sales of fair-trade products in the combined conventional and natural channels grew 26 percent between 2008 and 2009—from $176.9 million to $223 million—according to data from SPINS, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research firm. The natural channel (excluding Whole Foods Market) grew 9 percent, but the conventional channel (excluding Walmart) skyrocketed 34.6 percent, according to SPINS.

“It’s really driven by consumer demand,” says Cate Baril, director of business development for grocery and ingredients at Oakland, Calif.-based TransFair USA, which provides third-party certification of fair-trade products in the U.S. “We’re seeing a rise in socially conscious consumers who want to see a change in ‘business as usual’ and are willing to pay for it.”

The nonprofit organization certifies products based on such standards as fair prices paid to farmers, fair labor conditions, direct trade with producer groups, participation in community development projects and environmental sustainability. TransFair has certified about 800 companies that make 6,000 fair-trade products in 100 categories. That list has grown from coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar, rice, fresh fruit and vanilla to include herbs, spices, personal care products, ingredients such as processed fruits and even textiles.

“Consumers are saying, ‘If I can get fair-trade cocoa in my ice cream, why can’t I get fair-trade cocoa in my cocoa butter?’” Baril says.

Hot trend: 100 percent fair trade
TransFair and the umbrella group Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International commissioned a study in 2009 of consumers in 15 countries. Researchers found that nearly nine in 10 American consumers believe that companies that deal with poor countries should pay workers fairly and ensure safe working conditions. And 81 percent of conumers said that seeing the Fair Trade Certified label positively affects their perception of a brand.

It’s a message that an increasing number of companies have embraced. “The big trend for 2010 is going 100 percent fair trade,” says Stacy Geagan Wagner, spokeswoman for TransFair.

Popular South Burlington, Vt., ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, for example, announced in February that it will go fully fair trade by 2013. That’s 121 ingredients so far—the company is still counting—and completes a commitment that began in 2005 with fair-trade coffee.

“When we looked at the company moving forward, we looked at the fair trade model … and it aligned with Ben & Jerry’s values,” says Rob Michalak, the company’s director of social mission. “We said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”

One certifier doesn’t fit all
Many fair-trade certifiers belong to the 24-member Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, which sets worldwide fair-trade standards and supports fair-trade producers. In addition, many members emphasize environmental aspects such as preservation of rain forests and reforestation.

Sebastopol, Calif.-based yerba maté maker Guayakí, for example, is certified by Fair for Life in Switzerland, because “they certify the environmental aspect as well,” says Guayakí Cofounder David Karr. “We make sure the workers have safe and sanitary conditions. But because we source all our maté from the rain forest, we have a restoration-driven mission.”

That mission has resulted in the planting of 150,000 trees in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil rain forests last year, up from 46,000 trees in 2008.

The company works with 150 families that grow yerba maté, and reported 10 percent growth in 2009. It could be higher. “More people want to work with us than we can commit to,” Karr says. “We need to increase demand.”

Jane Hoback is a writer in Denver. Thanks to fair trade, she has learned to respect ice cream as well as love it, and she now knows how to pronounce açai.

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