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Fair Trade, Inc.

Ben & Jerry's highlights the fair trade vanilla and cocoa in its Chocolate Macadamia flavor. (Ben & Jerry's)

When I think of fair trade, I think of coffee or tea or bananas. But the fair-trade label is increasingly popping up on all kinds of products: ice cream, lip balm, even T-shirts.

Fair trade has gone corporate. Composite products -- items with some but not all fair trade ingredients -- are the fastest-growing part of the market, according to Paul Rice, chief executive of certifier TransFair USA. In 2009, the number of certified multi-ingredient products rose 23 percent vs. 9 percent for all fair trade products.

Is that a good thing?

Naturally, Rice thinks it's terrific because it increases demand for fair trade staples such as cocoa and sugar. Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Macadamia ice cream might not be 100 percent fair trade, but it has helped increase U.S. imports of fair-trade certified cocoa 111 percent, from 1.8 million pounds in 2006 to 3.8 million pounds in 2008. Imports of fair trade sugar jumped 142 percent, from 3.6 million pounds to 8.7 million pounds in the same period.

"What we've seen is the mainstreaming of the model," said Rice, who launched the fair-trade certification in the United States 10 years ago. Today, TransFair USA certifies 830 products including vanilla, honey, olive oil and, coming soon, nuts.

Okay. But I was concerned about greenwashing. Would any company that used a little bit of fair trade sugar or 5-percent fair trade cotton be allowed to slap a fair-trade label on its product? Could a coffee company use half fair-trade beans and half conventional beans and still get a stamp of approval? Would fair trade become the next organic, a key battleground in the food labeling wars?

Rice said his standards remain strict. Single-ingredient products such as coffee or tea must be 100 percent fair trade to be certified. Energy bars, ice cream and juice blends must be clearly labeled as to which ingredients are fair trade, both under the TransFair logo and in the list of ingredients. "We had a big strategy and philosophical debate over this," Rice said. "We wanted real clarity about what was and what wasn't fair trade."

TransFair appears to be succeeding. Fair-trade certified ingredients are clearly named under the official black-and-white logo. But the organization must continue its efforts to certify more products, including foods grown in the United States. (That way Ben & Jerry's could feature fair trade milk, for example, not just the mix-in flavors.)

"As we know it today, fair trade is about the developed world helping the developing world. But in some ways that's a false barrier," Rice told me. "Conscious consumers are not less sympathetic to Mexican workers picking strawberries in Watsonville [Calif.] than to Mexican workers picking bananas in Mexico. We are interested in extending the market."

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  July 20, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Food labeling  | Tags: Jane Black, fair trade  
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Wonderful to hear about the initiative to increase sales for underpriviledged growers in developing countries. Multi-ingredient products are obviously the way to go.
As you indicate yourself, this is a difficult and complex issue. How will the labelling be resolved to be authentic and how do we do justice to the differences between workers in the South vs workers in the North. A poor person in the United States is very likely to be perceived as rich by a poor person in Bolivia, for example. I have even seen a lot of differences in developing countries themselves - most notably South Africa or India. Look forward to see how TransFair handles this challenge.

Posted by: hugosalias-washingtonpost | July 20, 2009 6:20 PM | Report abuse

Totally agree. But I do think it's an outmoded idea that the only food producers who need help are overseas. It's also important to see what's going on here at home. And they seem to be looking at it.

Posted by: Jane Black | July 21, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

REPLY TO "Jane Black": There is a growing concern for Domestic Fair Trade. Check out the Domestic Fair Trade Association and also IMO's "Fair for Life."

They along with TransFair and 69 other fair trade vendors and organizations are reaching out to the White House to invite the First Lady to make the White House a "Fair Trade Home." Please consider adding your own signature to the First Lady's online invitation at Fair Trade White House.

Posted by: fairtradethewhitehouse | July 22, 2009 4:24 PM | Report abuse

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