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What are your impressions of certification programs like Fair Trade?

Certification programs like Fair Trade attract a lot of attention and there is a growing number of consumers interested in Fair Trade chocolate among other foods. But, what do you really think about them? Are they a good thing? Do they accomplish their mission? Are they effective? What, if anything needs/can be done to improve them?

Tags: alliance, certification, fair, programs, rainforest, trade

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We had a visitor from Fair Trade in my course on Environmental Problems and Solutions course at San Francisco State University. He indicated that Fair Trade requires suppliers' farms to be democratically organized. I like that. However, I have a big problem with the disenfranchisement that occurs when unfinished goods are shipped away from the source and pumped up in value that doesn't return to the origin. Fortunately, the Fair Trade rep had an example of one organization that had organized into a chocolate making group and were producing their own bars named Divine. The profit from the finished product actually went to the women farmers. Now that's a happy ending. This seemed like a unique story, though. I worry that the popularity and increased justice of Fair Trade will institutionalize the export of unfinished products and make it harder for products like Divine bars to arise. On the other hand, socially savvy chocolate connoisseurs can increase the demand for bars like these. I just hope there are enough of us who are willing to look beyond the Fair Trade logo. Thanks for bringing it up!

Here's a link to Divine:

Thanks for sharing your experience. While Fair Trade does require co-ops to be democratically organized, it does not oversee the election procedures nor certify that the co-op management is not corrupt. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common experience.

Another thing to remember about Fair Trade is that it does not set any requirements for quality or improving quality. A focus on improving quality would actually be more valuable in the long run.

There are places where Fair Trade does work. One of them is in Punta Gorda, Belize at the Toledo Cacao Growers Association. One reason why it works is that their biggest customer (Green and Blacks) has a representative in the area full-time keeping an eye on things.
Oh, yes, Green & Blacks' set-up looks fabulous, both from their book Unwrapped (got it for Christmas) and from the brochure of your dream-trip (wish I could go on a student's budget!). I'm glad you reminded me of this. I do like to keep a running mental list of success stories.

I agree with your comments about quality. I wonder how well organic (which I understand Fair Trade incentivises) translates into quality.

I have been seeing a lot of chocolate bars with the Fair Trade certification lately.  I might be a bit cynical, but it seems like certifications, like the Fair Trade certification, is more of a marketing gimmick.  It would be great if the chocolate bar companies actually show the "fruits of their labor" by publicizing what are actually happening at their "fair trade" farms.  I guess I'm just not supportive of organizations that act like they are doing good in the world, when only a small percentage of their bars are considered Fair Trade. 

How about a certification called "Sustainable Trade"?  The organization claiming "Sustainable Trade" practices would need to prove that the grower of their beans is being paid a multiple of market prices at the time of purchase.  For example, I pay one of my growers TWICE market price at the time of the sale, but still can't call Choklat "Fair Trade" even though it's far more fair than the BS Fair Trade certification that the general public dotes on.


Just thinking out loud here....




I applaud your commitment to paying for improved quality, irrespective of formal certifications, which often return dubious value while guaranteeing increased costs of production.

I think a more beneficial way to think about pricing is to decouple it from commodity market and ask questions like, "Does the price paid reflect the true cost of production?", and "Does the price paid enable the grower/producer to support their family, sustain their farms, and strengthen their community?" Often, even double the market price is still not enough to answer yes to those questions.

The market price is not reflective of anything concrete. One the one hand, there is a forecast shortfall of 1 million metric tonnes in less than a decade. One bank expects, because of forecast record harvests in West Africa, for the price to be at $2300/MT this time next year and another expects it to be at $2700. In the meantime, the ICCO spot price has plummeted by nearly 30% (from over $3100/MT to under $2200/MT) since July. And that's the CIF price (delivered, customs, insurance, freight), not the price paid at the farm gate.

For everyone out there thinking about what's "fair" go to the grocery store and think about how shockingly cheap many bars of chocolate are. As long as that's the norm - and that's the expectation, then "Fair" trade isn't.



You have a point, and I believe this was something that was discussed at length in another thread somewhere on this forum.  I think the consensus was that a more "sustainable" deal was one that was tied to the socio-economic conditions of origin.


Thanks for the reminder.




ECO Social buy IBD!!!

I think Fairtrade has to be taken in context. While the concept of paying a fair price for something is great, the reality of global prices makes the 'label' fairtrade an over simplification and allows the consumer to sleep through what should ideally be a 'conscious' choice. It has to be taken in the context of location: the market price, fair trade or not, for cacao is set and the buyers pay more or less that price regardless of country of origin. For a Costa Rican farmer to make the same net profit from cacao as a Nicaraguan or Guatemalan farmer, he has to produce more or find a better price for what he grows. The cost of living is simply higher and thus his returns will be smaller. Fairtrade then works for the very poorest countries. Coffee has the same problem - for many Costa Rican co-ops it is not worth their while being fairtrade because the extra costs associated with the 'label' outweigh any extra returns on price. Not really the way to go to encourage sustainable practises.

It's complicated, and I'm not an economist by any stretch, my experience with fairtrade comes from listening to the farmers.


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