BEHIND THE LABEL 


; Leonardo Bravo and Luis Loja are different from most banana farmers in Ecuador. In contrast to workers on big plantations, many of whom are paid little and are exposed to dangerous pesticides, Bravo and Loja work in a small farmer cooperative that works in tandem with the fair-trade movement to ensure they receive fair prices for their goods.

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;Fair trade is an international movement that directly supports improvements for farmers living in developing countries. Through environmental sustainability work, fair pricing and direct trade, many small farmers like Bravo and Loja are able to grow individual products like bananas, coffee or tea, and compete in the global marketplace under better working conditions than they might otherwise experience.

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;But after more than a decade of activism in the United States, the fair-trade movement is experiencing growing pains. This was perhaps most evident at a recent United Students for Fair Trade Conference in Boston, which Bravo and Loja both attended. Previously silent, fair-trade farmers like Bravo and Loja are starting to demand a place at the negotiating table.

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;"We came here to be a presence and a representation of the voice of small-scale farmers, and we want to grow the marketplace," says Loja.

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;The fair-trade movement has grown exponentially in recent years thanks to popularization and participation by Starbucks, Wal-Mart and other corporate giants, which have filtered millions of dollars into fair-trade certified products.

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;As fair-trade farmers' voices grow stronger, so do those of organizations like that of Jonathan Rosenthal, managing director of Oké USA, a company that imports and sells fair-trade bananas in the United States. Managing the growth of the movement while ensuring that it maintains its core principles has proven difficult in recent years, says Rosenthal.

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;"There's competing models of what we're about," he says. "One of the dangers is that the fair-trade movement could splinter, [with] smaller, more idealistic companies splitting off [and] doing something different."

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; Enormous growth

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;;The roots of the U.S. fair-trade movement can be traced back to World War II, when religious organizations developed relationships with World War II refugees and sold their handmade crafts. Decades later, in 1986, Equal Exchange, the nation's first fair-trade company, was founded. First and foremost, Equal Exchange was a company founded on a set of principles which encouraged social and economic improvements for farmers who earned a pittance in developing countries. In light of the social and political unrest in Nicaragua during the late 1980s, Equal Exchange picked their first product for the U.S. market: fair-trade Nicaraguan coffee.

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;In those early years, long before "fair trade" was a buzzword uttered by top executives at Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts, Equal Exchange struggled to sell its concept to customers. According to Rodney North, spokesperson for Equal Exchange, food co-ops across the country were the first to embrace the fair-trade concept.

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;"They're like the midwives to the fair-trade movement; it was the food co-ops that embraced [fair trade] when it came out in the 1980s," he says. "After that, other retailers and companies got involved."

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;Equal Exchange lucked out during the 1990s when the specialty coffee boom took off in the United States. More individual coffee brewers adopted the fair-trade model and in 1998, TransFair USA, an affiliate of the Fairtrade Labeling Organization, entered the scene as a certifier of fair-trade products.

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;In the past nine years, fair-trade certified products have exploded into the U.S. marketplace to include tea, cocoa-based products, rice, sugar, vanilla and tropical fruits.

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;And it's only going to get bigger, says Nicole Chettero, spokesperson for TransFair USA.

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;"Already in the last two years you see signature brand Costco fair-trade certified coffee, all espresso at Dunkin' Donuts is fair-trade certified, and it's starting to show up at Sam's Club," she says. "It's going to keep growing within the cooperative grocery store and keep developing, but it's also going to bleed into the mainstream."

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;Fair-trade certified products set a price floor for impoverished farmers, encourage small, democratic farmer cooperatives and offer farmers financing that can be used to grow their businesses. As large manufacturers like Starbucks and Sam's Club, owned by Wal-Mart, take on the fair-trade label, millions of Americans are introduced to fair-trade products. Residents of Mobile, Ala., and Omaha, Neb., now have access to fair-trade products; two years ago most probably didn't even know what the term meant.

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;The beauty of fair-trade product certification is that standards are controlled by one entity — TransFair USA, says Chettero. This stands in direct contrast to the organics movement, which has encountered consumer confusion in recent years as to what constitutes "organic."

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;"It will always be the same, no matter where it shows up. So you always know that the same environmental standards, the same price floors, the same demand for democratic transparency, all of that is the same no matter where it shows up," she says.

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;In the coming years, Chettero says TransFair is considering the introduction of flowers, garments and wine to its portfolio. American consumers, she says, are ready.

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;"More and more Americans are not only asking themselves as they walk down the grocery isle, ‘Is this good for me,' they're also asking, ‘Is this good for others and the environment?'" she says. "We find that we can vote and protest and do all sorts of things, but where we spend our money is one of the most powerful decisions we can make."

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; Growing pains

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;;Consumer education is perhaps the biggest obstacle that TransFair USA needs to tackle, says Chettero. Many companies claim to offer fair-trade prices or have fair labor practices, but the only way consumers can be sure that a product is fair-trade certified is if TransFair's logo appears on the package, she says.

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;For handicrafts and textiles, which are not products within TransFair's domain, consumers should look for the seller's membership in the Fair Trade Federation, a membership-based organization that is founded on peer- and self-verification, says Chettero. Some companies that sell all fair-trade certified products, but are particularly dedicated to the fair-trade movement, like Equal Exchange, also belong to FTF.

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;Big corporate involvement in the fair-trade movement is a double-edged sword for mission-based companies like Equal Exchange. On the one hand, corporate giants have purchasing power that dwarfs most companies. If Starbucks purchases a small percentage of their coffee as fair-trade certified, they lift the rest of the market along with them. But then there's the issue of tokenism, says Equal Exchange's North.

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;"You want them to get on board at a high-bar level, and not at a low-bar level," he says "Unfortunately, we've seen the tokenism, and it's the role of the fair traders and the public to keep pushing for more."

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;For example, when a customer buys a latte at Starbucks, that customer won't receive fair-trade certified coffee unless he or she specifically asks for it. That means that most of the coffee flowing out of Starbucks is not fair-trade certified.

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;For Trina Tocco, campaigns coordinator at International Labor Rights Fund, a nonprofit that educates the public about international labor-rights issues, the fair-trade movement is headed toward confusion.

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;"It's the exact thing that happened in the organics movement," she says. "As more and more entities came into the mix, it watered down the actual standards and the integrity of the term and the label itself."

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;For Chettero, these fair-trade issues direct a somewhat unnecessary level of frustration and ire at TransFair USA, which focuses solely on certifying products — not companies.

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;"We never claim to certify companies. If ever our logo is used in a way that [is] misleading, we always encourage consumers to let us know about it," she says. "When we see it, we always notify companies and advise them to use it in a way that doesn't deceive consumers."

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; The coffee buzz

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;;In no industry is the fair-trade debate more pronounced than coffee. Currently, fair-trade coffee is the fastest growing segment of the specialty-coffee industry, which is the fastest growing segment of the overall coffee industry. According to TransFair USA, the estimated retail value for fair-trade certified coffee jumped from an estimated $50 million in 2000 to $750 million in 2006.

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;With large companies carrying fair-trade certified coffee, smaller roasters committed to the fair-trade mission have started to question how the fair-trade movement can maintain its core principles. Some roasters, like Matt Earley, co-founder of Just Coffee in Madison, Wis., have decided to split from the mainstream.

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;Once a carrier of the TransFair USA logo, Just Coffee stopped paying dues to TransFair several years ago. Earley and Just Coffee felt that TransFair could have done more to maintain the ideas behind the fair-trade movement.

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;"I feel like TransFair USA and FLO in Bonn, Germany, have taken their eye off the ball on some of the broader goals and [focused] solely on growth," he says. "In doing so they have sold the label too cheap to transnational companies who are part of the problem, and aren't interested in being part of a solution."

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;Just Coffee belongs to Cooperative Coffees, a co-op owned by about 20 small roasters that have direct, fair-trade relationships with coffee bean farmers. Some roasters in Cooperative Coffees pay to use the TransFair USA label. Others, like Just Coffee, don't.

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;While Earley doesn't have the fair-trade certified logo on his coffee, his business is the textbook definition of fair-trade practice. Under the auspices of Cooperative Coffees, Just Coffee offers prefinancing to coffee bean farmers, which ensures that farmers won't have a cash shortage during the farming season. Just Coffee engages in long-term partnerships, meaning that it works with the same farmers every year for economic stability. It visits its farmers regularly throughout the year and encourages ecologically sound practices.

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;Over the years, the large corporations that carry fair-trade certified coffee have diluted these principles, says Earley. Participation in Cooperative Coffees enables Just Coffee to re-engage these core beliefs.

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;Bill Harris, president of Cooperative Coffees, adds that not only have partnerships between buyers and producers been reduced in the fair-trade movement, they're no longer assumed to be direct.

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;"As soon as the buyer and the seller do not know each other, a completely different relationship exists. Traditional fair-trade relationships required a personal relationship. Without this, the buyer puts price or supply pressure on the middle person, who often must transfer this pressure to the seller," he says.

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;In contrast to bigger companies that deal in fair trade, Cooperative Coffees also offers a higher price than the fair-trade certified floor price, about 20 cents more, says Harris.

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;The minimum floor price was set in 1989 and adjusted in the '90s.

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;Encouraging corporations to establish relationships will take time, Chettero says, but the learning curve will be worth it.

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;"I would argue that in trying to get more mainstream importers and roasters, we're trying to introduce the concept of a long-term trade relationship," she says. "If we can introduce that at the mainstream level, that's a good thing."

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;No one questions whether exposure of fair-trade products to middle America is a good thing, says Harris. However, he does question how lax those corporations are at following fair-trade principles.

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;"Of course it is healthy to have fair-trade coffee available in Nebraska, as long as the standards for fair-trade claims have been followed and are clearly communicated at all levels," he says. "Traditionally, fair trade meant disadvantaged farmers, long-term relationships, prefinancing for the crop, fair price, direct relationship at a minimum. Are all these tenets represented in the Sam's Club product?"

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; Transparent process

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;;There is growing concern from roasters and the fair-trade community about TransFair's certification process, which confirms that companies are paying fair-trade prices. According to some roasters, it could be doing more to regulate the industry.

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;A shining example in the fair-trade world is TransFair Canada, which recently took steps to beef up its auditing system. According to TransFair Canada Executive Director Rob Clarke, there were more than 450,000 kilograms of coffee sold last year that had no TransFair certification label. Not paying licensing fees is an issue because that's what supports the farmers, says Clarke. While Canadian companies claim that farmers are being compensated, the issue for Clarke is creating a paper trail for the overall industry.

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;"I call it ‘half-pregnant.' Individuals in the North are saying, ‘I pay a higher price, and it's coming from a fair-trade producer, so that's my definition of what fair trade is,'" he says.

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;If more U.S. fair-trade companies leave the TransFair label, it will complicate how the market can track products and project growth. According to Chettero, TransFair USA performs a double-blind audit, checking both the farmer's and the manufacturer's books to ensure that fair-trade farmers are getting paid the right price. However, Earley and others question just how transparent TransFair USA's audit is. They may very well perform double-blind audits on all companies, but the question of how often and when those audits are performed comes up often for large multinational companies.

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;There's room for improvement. One possible suggestion would be to follow TransFair Canada's lead, which plans to spin off its auditing and certification arm to a separate, third-party group. This is important, says Clarke, because there's a conflict of interest when one organization markets to individual companies, and then certifies them.

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;"In theory, I think I'm a good salesman," he says. "If I have a certification guy come to me, and I've been working on trying to get a major grocer to come on board, the grocer says, ‘I don't want to do the audit once a year, I want to do it once every three years.' In my role, I could turn around and say to my certification guy, ‘You're only going to audit them once every three years.'"

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; Shaping the movement

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;;In addition to more transparent auditing, people in the movement want to see TransFair USA incorporate voices from fair-trade farmers and representatives from grass-roots organizations into TransFair's board of directors.

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;TransFair USA is open to incorporating more diverse voices on its board, says Chettero. Ultimately, certification of fair-trade products should be a starting point for the entire movement. Much like the organics movement, organic certification was the beginning. From there, organizations began discussing how far the produce traveled from origin, and whether it was grown on a small- or large-scale farm.

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;"What would the organics movement be today without certification?" she says. "In the same way organics has to have the certification movement and the notion of ‘beyond organics,' fair trade has to have fair-trade certification, but it's a starting point. Beyond that you have to have a discussion about fair trade. It can't be either/or. These are aspects of the whole solution."

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;In order to prevent the growing schisms in the movement, Joe Kurnow, national coordinator for USFT, says there needs to be "deep listening" in the coming years, "whether that's listening to producer cooperatives or listening to the grass roots." Says Kurnow, "I think if there's not a real commitment to communication and being responsible, then the labels may lose legitimacy with their core supporters."

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;While deep listening is important, all parties in the fair-trade movement are finding themselves discussing uncomfortable topics: class, race and gender. What does it mean for a movement based on democratic principles and equality to exclude farmers and other stakeholders from its board of directors? How can the mainstream movement explain maintaining the same floor price for fair-trade certified coffee for more than a decade? And how loudly do farmers like Bravo and Loja have to talk before the rest of the movement will listen?

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; How do I know if ;I'm buying fair trade?

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;;Going to the grocery store used to mean buying the foods that you wanted to eat. Now it means deciphering terms like "all-natural," "organic" and "fair trade." According to Chettero, all fair-trade certified products should have the black and white TransFair logo on them, or "Bucket Boy," as TransFair folks call the logo. Current products that are fair-trade certified include coffee, tea, cocoa-based products, rice, sugar, vanilla and fresh tropical fruits like bananas, mangoes and pineapples.

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;There are companies that sell textiles and handicrafts, items that can't be fair-trade certified. On these items, look for the Fair Trade Federation logo. Just like everything, there are ifs and buts. Some companies make claims about paying "fair trade prices" or having "sweatshop-free labor."

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;As consumers, it's important to ask questions about what the labels really mean, says Tocco of the International Labor Rights Fund.

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;"I've gone to my local coffee shop and they have ‘fair trade' all over the coffee beans they're selling, but it won't have the TransFair certification. When I get into a back-and-forth, I ask, ‘How do you know,' and they say, ‘Well, they told us it was.' It's easy if you ask one or two basic questions; the store should be able to prove it. If there's any ambiguity then you as a consumer should do further research."

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;Thanks to Google it isn't that challenging these days to research companies. ILRF recently released a report card on manufacturers in the chocolate industry and regularly reports on the flower and garment industry. TransFair and the Fair Trade Federation have websites that list members and guidelines that their organizations follow.

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;When in doubt, ask questions, says Tocco.

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;"It's by consumers asking questions that companies and retailers realize that the demand exists, and that will continue to allow for products to be available," she says. "Ask questions, and hopefully you'll get answers. If you don't get answers, then it also tells you something."

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; A version of this story appeared originally in Colorado's Boulder Weekly.

; feedback@orlandoweekly.com

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