Fair trade is one of the product certifications consumers frequently take note of when making a tea purchase. When seeking out fair trade tea or other products such as coffee, few consumers realize that in 2011, fair trade certification split into two organizations, Fairtrade International, and Fair Trade USA – each with distinctly different points of view on the objectives and definition of fair trade.

which_fairtradeThe fair trade concept was initiated by a Dutch missionary who was working with coffee producers in Mexico during the early 1980’s. More than 30 years later, fair trade products – including coffee and tea -record annual sales in excess of $6 billion dollars. Given the seemingly successful growth of fair trade, what caused the split between the international and USA organizations?

In a nutshell, the international organization is focused on the producer side of products and on helping improve living wages for small scale farmers.  Fair Trade USA has shifted towards a more consumer/free market point of view to grow the fair trade business for consumers by bringing in larger industrial farms and less organized small producers.

To some, this pattern of change in fair trade certification may seem familiar to the growth tensions that organic certification has experienced. Originally, the organic movement began with smaller farmers who focused on organic growing practices which were of little interest to larger, more industrial producers. Once the sales of organic food demonstrated a strong growth trend, larger producers began to move into organic farming. In some cases, these larger producers were actively lobbying for the tweaking or weakening of organic standards in order to accommodate large scale production methods.

In regards to fair trade, it is not the standards that are the point of contention between the two organizations as much as it is a distinction between economic and cultural perspectives. Sticking to the original mission, Fairtrade International is working to improve the living wages for small producers by trying to change the economic system which they feel is unjust, inefficient for the farmers and harmful to the environment. Fair Trade USA is more business-like in its approach, feeling that bringing more fair trade products to market and giving consumers the choice to purchase more fair trade items is ultimately the best way to make the existing economic system work for the greatest good to both farmers and shoppers.

Putting their differences aside, it is interesting to consider the alternative to fair trade products. Although sales are growing, these certified products are still a small minority (only 2% of coffee production in fair trade) and when you think about it, the majority of what we consumers are buying – and the economic message we are sending – is that it is OK to produce food products in ways that may not insure living wages for farmers. Is that really what we intend? Shouldn’t fair trade be the norm, not the exception?

The nature of fair trade is that there will always be a degree of tension between meeting economic goals which address social inequalities and the desire for the growth of fair trade products as a business category. Depending on your perspective and how you feel your financial support of fair trade products is best directed, Fairtrade International might be a point of distinction and preference vs. Fair Trade USA. Ultimately, both certification bodies are helping move the needle in the right direction.  As the saying goes, to throw away something that is doing good – holding out for the perfect – certainly isn’t the answer. Perhaps in the future, for the best interests of the consumer, the two organizations can mend fences and the fair trade system can be unified under one identity label for customers to keep track of rather than multiple certification bodies.

 IMage courtesy of the contributor.