Fair Trade USA’s New Labeling — Confusing and Wrong

Imagine picking up a box of brownie mix that is labeled fair trade. This is a purchase that you can feel good about, right?

Well, that’s a puzzling question to consider. What if you knew that the sugar, milk, and flour in the mix, the three ingredients that make up the largest percentage of the brownie, were not fair trade at all? You might wonder why it was even carrying the fair trade label. I know I would.

This situation might soon become a reality. Fair Trade USA is considering changing its requirements for what’s labeled fair trade, and what isn’t.

Under the new policy (which has not been approved yet,) foods will only need 20% fair trade ingredients to be labeled as “fair trade.” Other labeling organizations require a threshold of at least 50% to be labeled “fair trade.” Of course, only products that use 100% fair trade ingredients will carry the “Fair Trade Certified” label.

The reason for this drastic change in policy is because some companies have a difficult time sourcing fair trade ingredients for certain mixed foods. The brownie example is a good one. Most brownie mixes, fair trade or not, use milk, flour, and sugar produced domestically. This means that there’s no chance, according to FTUSA’s perspective, that those crops were produced under exploitative conditions.

Allowing a 20% benchmark for fair trade ingredients means that more companies will hop on the fair trade bandwagon, and not let major ingredients like flour, milk, or sugar (all crops produced domestically here in the US,) get in the way of their efforts to source other fair ingredients in order to achieve that label.

According to this press release, “FTUSA will not require a minority percentage disclosure that could inform consumers and remedy the deception that the seal otherwise conveys that the product is majority fair trade.”

What This Means for Fair Trade Suppliers

Here’s what all this means. It means that a Hershey Bar, which uses only 20%-30% fair trade ingredients, will now be able to compete on the same shelf, in the same stores, as chocolate bars that use 100% fair trade ingredients. Because Hershey is using cheaper ingredients, sourced from cheap suppliers, their chocolate bar is going to be less expensive than the fair trade chocolate bar.

I strongly believe that FTUSA is going in the wrong direction with this new policy. Not only are they lowering the standards of fair trade, standards they’ve tried to promote since the creation of their organization, but they’re putting fair trade suppliers at a distinct disadvantage. They’re allowing gigantic corporations to slap a fair trade label on products that aren’t really fair trade at all.

This means fewer sales for small, fair trade suppliers, and more confused customers who might increasingly become disillusioned with the principles of fair trade.

This new policy also puts farmers at a disadvantage. Companies will no longer have to work at establishing connections and relationships with fair trade sugar or flour producers. This means less business overall for these growers.

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