Label lowdown: “fair trade”

This article was originally published in September 2020

Are there guarantees that “fair trade” products are truly fair? We asked Charlotte Vallaeys, senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports, to discuss what the phrase means and what various fair trade labels do—and don’t—guarantee.

As Vallaeys summarized, the basic idea behind fair trade labels is that companies purchasing imported agricultural products pay a minimum price (a “fair price”), set globally, as well as a fair trade premium to be used to invest in local communities. Coffee, tea, chocolate and bananas are common products where consumers seek out a fair trade seal.

While Consumer Reports has not issued formal reviews for each label, from her perspective the main labels that provide reliable guarantees are Fair Trade Certified, Fairtrade and Fair for Life.

The standards for all three cover more than a minimum price paid and include requirements for fair and safe working conditions and even pesticide use. When it comes to pesticides, though, she recommends seeking out products that carry the USDA certified label in addition to fair trade labels, as “the fair trade standards don’t go nearly as far as the organic standards in terms of prohibiting the use of toxic and environmentally damaging pesticides.”

Regarding the requirements for fair and safe working conditions, all three labels ensure that the crops weren’t grown by forced (slave) labor or child labor. “The standards are quite detailed in this regard and also include prohibitions on sexual harassment, physical intimidation and abuse of farmworkers,” she said.

Fair trade labels originally came out of the movement to connect directly with small-scale farmers who were paid a fair price, rather than large farms with hired workers. But in September 2011, she noted, the organization behind the Fair Trade Certified label began certifying large farms with hired farmworkers as well, using a separate set of standards (the organization continues to certify products purchased directly from small-scale farmers and cooperatives as well). Therefore, consumers who want to be sure their coffee and cocoa is purchased directly from small-scale farmers or farmer cooperatives should look for the Fairtrade seal, rather than Fair Trade Certified.

What percentage of the ingredients in a product have to be certified in order to carry the label? Fairtrade and Fair for Life have stricter requirements—all ingredients that are available to be certified fair trade must be certified in order to use their seal. Fair Trade Certified allows the use of the seal on the front of the package if only some of the ingredients are certified. So you could see that seal, for instance, on iced coffee made with fair trade coffee beans but non-fair trade certified cane sugar.

Fair trade logos

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