view current print edition




Fair trade moves forward slowly but deliberately

by Christina DiMartino | April 25, 2010
The fair trade movement intends to provide market access to otherwise- marginalized producers to ensure higher-than-typical wages and to help producers develop knowledge, skills and resources to improve their lives. Fair trade advocates seek to raise awareness of the movement's philosophies among consumers in developed nations.

Most consumers tend to think of coffee first when they think of fair trade products, as coffee was the first fair trade agricultural product traded about a half a century ago. It was quickly followed by tea, dried fruits, cocoa, sugar, fruit juices, rice, spices and nuts.

In the past decade, fresh produce items have joined the fair trade movement. Fair trade certification was first practiced in Europe and ultimately spread to other developed nations. It was adopted in the United States in 2008.

Carmen K. Iezzi, executive director of the Fair Trade Federation in Washington, DC, an association that strengthens and promotes North American organizations' commitment to fair trade, said that certification in the United States is growing in popularity.

"We have seen increased interest from a variety of sectors, although there has not yet been as much response from the produce industry as we would like," said Ms. Iezzi. "It is a consumer-driven movement that fits perfectly with the locally grown, organic, sustainability and green trends, making today a perfect time for retailers to show their support of fair trade in their produce departments."

Challenges facing fair trade fruits are inhibiting rapid growth of the movement. Because fair trade aims to help producers in developing countries obtain better trading conditions and promote sustainability, it demands higher prices than for conventional produce, which must be guaranteed by buyers.

Nissa Pierson, owner and managing director of Ger-Nis International, a supplier of a full line of packaged specialty and organic produce in Brooklyn, NY, said that fair trade challenges buyers' profitability.

"Buyers and sellers alike want to make as much money as possible," she said. "But fair trade means fixed pricing, which is why the markets have fought this movement. As more consumers learn what fair trade products mean, the more they are demanding them. This is especially true for tropical fruits because they are produced in developing nations where workers have historically been underpaid. If I sell a fair trade product and something goes wrong, the buyer - not the supplier - loses the money because the price to the grower is guaranteed. Therefore, it's imperative to partner fair trade producers with retailers who are both high end."

Transitioning into fair trade products was less of a challenge for Ger-Nis because it sells fairly expensive products. The company handles only organic fair trade products, including mangos and avocados from Mexico and Peru, and pineapples from Costa Rica.

"There is still some confusion about fair trade on the part of retailers," added Ms. Pierson. "Most are taking it slow, which is good because few produce suppliers offer fair trade products today. But even mainstream retailers are now talking about the movement. Pricing is doable in avocados and bananas, but mangos are more difficult because prices are drastically different. If the conventional market drops, fair trade prices are still high."

Bradley Russell, banana operations manager for Oké USA, a fair trade banana importer in West Bridgewater, MA, said that the parent company, Equal Exchange, started selling fair trade coffee 26 years ago, and so is known today as a pioneer in the movement.

"Equal Exchange continues to sell fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate and other products, while Oké USA handles only bananas sold under the 'Equal Exchange' brand," said Ms. Russell.

The company has seen an increase in fair trade banana demand over the past year, despite the higher prices.

"Pricing is a challenge in opening new fair trade markets, although natural food stores and cooperatives have been selling them successfully for several years," she said. "Because fair trade is riding the wave of locally grown and traceability trends, we are seeing an increase in demand from all buyers. Oké USA works only with small farmers, and we have full traceability. Consumers are now looking for these attributes, and they want to increase their knowledge of where their food is coming from and how it's produced."

Scott DiMartini, sales manager for Turbana Corp., headquartered in Miami, said that a portion of its growers are fair trade certified.

"Turbana got involved with fair trade because its culture matches ours," he said. "We are highly cognizant of giving back to our growers. Turbana supports Fundaunibán, a foundation that allows us to reinvest a portion of our sales every year in various community projects where our growers are located."

Mr. DiMartini said that Whole Foods Market is purchasing Turbana's fair trade bananas and labeling them with its "Whole Trade" private label.

"Whole Foods has given us the opportunity to see without question that consumers are supporting fair trade products," he added. "People are quickly learning that fair trade means their money is going toward ethical trade, the environment and social causes."

Two other areas where Turbana is seeing growth in fair trade are university foodservice and restaurant environments.

Albert's Organics, a leading distributor of organic fresh foods headquartered in Bridgeport, NJ, is a strong supporter of fair trade bananas. The company supports three small grower associations in Ecuador and Peru that represent hundreds of small banana producers. By guaranteeing minimum floor prices and social premiums, Albert's Organics said that fair trade enables producers to invest in their farms, their communities and to protect the environment. Albert's director of procurement, Melody Meyer, has made several trips to South America to visit firsthand the farms and the conditions of these communities. A video depicting her travels can be viewed at

Interrupcion Fair Trade LLC in Brooklyn, NY, deals in fair trade apples, pears, blueberries, pineapples and avocados. Rafael Goldberg, chief executive officer, started the company in 2003 following his graduation from New York University.

"It was one of those moments when an inflection point occurs," he said. "I was a graduate looking out at the world and seeing the rise of global commerce and new technologies that enable us to communicate and understand more. And a lot of that world is very messy for people in agriculture."

Interrupcion sources from Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica and Mexico, areas where Mr. Goldberg sees opportunities to create better economic and social practices.

"We see a huge opportunity for fair trade on the consumer side," he said. "People are really interested in the source of their food, and fair trade encapsulates the local, organic, sustainable and green trends. As consumers are finding more information on how the people who produced their food are treated, they are filling the pipeline to make future improvements. We see the trend gaining steam."

Mr. Goldberg agrees that fair trade, particularly in produce, is immature, but he said that there is a resounding demand for increased availability of products.

"Bringing more fair trade to mainstream retailers is a critical component," he said. "It was very focused on coffee for a long time, and that helped to inform and educate consumers. Our role is to work with new producers in new places to develop standards, certifications and supply chains, and to educate retailers and consumers about the benefits of fair trade."