Changes in the world of Fair Trade Labeling: What’s a Green Consumer to do?

On September 15, Fair Trade USA (FTUSA), the United States’ labeling body for fair trade certified products announced that it would be leaving Fairtrade International (FLO), the international fair trade system.  Previously, certification for fair trade has always happened under FLO, which includes a network of 19 national labeling initiatives around the world

Fair Trade USA cites several reasons for this decision, including its desire to certify coffee grown on plantations as fair trade. (Historically only farmers organized into cooperatives could be considered as Fair Trade coffee producers).  FTUSA also stated that it sent nearly $2 million a year to FLO in membership fees which FTUSA felt it could put to better use in on US-based marketing initiatives.  Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that FTUSA feels its vision, which it calls “Fair Trade for All”, is significantly different from the existing international Fair Trade model.  Fair Trade USA is soliciting comments on its new standard for hired labor  to be used for coffee plantations until January 31, 2012.  Comments may be sent to standards@fairtradeusa.org

At this point, it’s unclear what the impact of these changes and proposed new standards will have on producers, though there is concern that the pursuit of increased volume will lead to a watering down of the standards, and perhaps less impact on small farmers’ livelihoods.  One thing that is clear is that these changes will not make it any easier for consumers to navigate the world of fair trade, and in fact, the already cluttered world of ethical labels is about to get even more confusing.

Fair Trade USA has announced that it will be moving to a new label for fair trade certified products (shown left). You will see this label when a product is 95% or more Fair Trade certified.  You will see an “ingredients” label (shown right) when a product has numerous ingredients and is at least 20% Fair Trade certified ingredients by dry weight.

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