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Fair Trade USA's new policies not fair for all, says consumer campaign

Fair Trade USA's "Fair Trade for All" initiative is drawing flak from the Fair World Project for its new fair trade certification policies. Will the policies cast a bigger net that leads to "fair washing"?

Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) recently announced its "Fair Trade for All" initiative with policy revisions that, depending on who you talk to, will either hurt or help the future of its fair trade certification in the U.S. While FTUSA seeks to provide a platform for more companies to do good and support farmers, fair trade-focused U.S. organizations have petitioned FTUSA to rescind the rule, saying it contributes to "fair washing."

The new initiative allows a blended product (not a whole product, such as coffee) to be labeled "Fair Trade Certified" if it contains 25 percent certified fair trade ingredients. To carry the "Fair Trade Certified (Ingredients)" mark, a product now may contain 10 percent certified fair trade ingredients.

Stacy Geagan Wagner, director of marketing and PR for Fair Trade USA, said the program "gives companies the ability to participate regardless of how big or small they are, if they're in a niche category of natural products or if they're a more mass-consumer targeted business." She noted the 25 percent rule is also stricter than the Fairtrade Labelling Organization's 20 percent requirement.

Last week, the Fair World Project (FWP), a campaign of the Organic Consumers Association, the nation’s largest network of green and ethical consumers, challenged FTUSA on its new policy. The organization sent a letter to FTUSA saying it will not recognize FTUSA as a reputable fair trade certifier unless it reverses its proposed labeling and commercial availability standards by Jan. 1, 2012.

Under the FTUSA's new policy, as long as products meet the 25 percent requirement, they can sport the Fair Trade Certified logo, no matter how many ingredients it takes to get there. Dana Gefner, executive director of FWP, said this is problematic because it offers corporations no incentive to increase the amount of fair trade-certified ingredients after they've hit the 25 percent threshold; it also undermines fully committed brands.

Airing a public grievance against Fair Trade USA has been a long time coming, said Gefner. "Right now, they have not engaged any stakeholders in any of their processes, and fair trade is really about opening up, being completely transparent and talking to many stakeholders throughout the fair trade movement. They haven't done that."

Will FTUSA's new fair trade rules be abused?

At the heart of the argument against FTUSA's Multiple Ingredients Product Policy is the fear that corporations will use the 25 percent ingredient loophole to their advantage. But Geagan Wagner of FTUSA says it's a moot point. "I don't believe any company within its reasonable mind would make the decision to take advantage of that loophole," she said.

The new policy does make it easier for companies to dip their toes into fair trade certification. For example, 75 percent of a product could comprise flour, eggs and milk that cannot be fair trade certified, but if fair trade sugar constitutes 25 percent of the product, the new policy could lead to more consumers and companies participating in fair trade.

But more products could lead to transparency issues. Gefner of the Fair World Project worries that "there's not going to be a way for consumers to distinguish a product with 25 percent fair trade ingredients compared to 100 percent."

For example, consider a Hershey and an Equal Exchange chocolate bar that are both Fair Trade Certified. On their faces, both seem equally socially conscious, but turn the bars over to read the ingredients list and you'll see a different story. FTUSA certification requires that each fair trade ingredient be clearly marked, so if consumers read the ingredients list they would be able to tell which bar has made a bigger fair trade commitment. 

And how many consumers read ingredient labels? If the NuVal Nutritional Scoring System's expansion is any indication, the answer is "not many." Consumer confusion over fair trade certification already abounds. Gefner returned this weekend from a conference aimed at answering how the public views the fair trade label. At the conference, one woman who purchased Ben & Jerry's was dismayed to discover that what she thought was a 100 percent fair trade product only had a handful of ingredients that were sourced fair trade.

Expanding fair trade's reach

As more companies demand fair trade ingredients, there will be higher availability and lower cost of ingredients. Until then, Geagan Wagner said FTUSA has to work with companies that want to get started.

"Our goal is to generate impact for producers. Would we like 100 percent of the ingredients to be fair trade certified? Absolutely, yes," she said. "And would we ever see a company that would have a chocolate bar where only the sugar, not the cocoa, would be certified? Under our policy that could happen. But we would be very open and honest to the company that that is not the ethical way to go."

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