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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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."