FLO, Fair Trade USA, and Starbucks: A Critique

Apr 1, 2012 3:00 PM ET

Posted by Julie Fahnestock

Part 1 of a multi-post series.

You've learned about the slavery behind food, apparel and well, almost everything you consume. You've decided to make some lifestyle choices and invest into more expensive, ethical products. You've heard fair trade ensures equitable wages for farmers.  Whole Foods is down the street and you know they offer multiple fair trade products. As you push your grocery cart you pick up bananas, coffee, sugar, cotton balls, chocolate, cocoa butter and molasses.  You're very happy because every single product is labeled as fair trade. But you're also completely perplexed because every single product is labeled fair trade by a different labeling organization: Fair Trade USA.  Fair Trade Labeling Organization. Fair Trade For Life. Alternative Trading Organization. Whole Trade. CAFÉ Principles. Direct Trade.  Could fair trade shopping be any more confusing??

What We Know:
We know there are multiple fair trade organizations.  We know they try to provide a fair market to the producers. We know they try their best to empower small communities of farmers.  (But do they?)We know when we purchase fair trade labeled products we are preventing slavery. (Wait… are we?)

What We Aren't Sure Of:
Who sets the fair trade standards?  Can each labeling organization create their own standards?  (yes!) Are these organizations accountable to a higher, governing body? (no!) Has fair trade become a marketing scheme as a way for companies to appeal to make more money? (we hope not!)

Through the following blog postings, you will learn that the fair trade industry isn't as simple of a solution as it sounds. (Aka: Fair trade does not end slavery.)  In fact, it's a very complex industry with several players approaching it in very different ways. Two of the main players, Fair Trade USA and the Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO), have led the way in terms of standard creation and marketing. This series of blog posts gives an in depth look at the controversial decision Fair Trade USA made in December 2011 to leave the internationally accepted standards of FLO and to create their own. * Debated questions are addressed: Should fair trade be open to large plantations? Will fair trade change the economies of small communities, as it was intended to do, if it big corporations like Starbucks and Cadbury get involved?  Is fair trade just another form of charity? Are Fair Trade USA's standards too low?

Hopefully, through this series you will get a better understanding of one thing: fair trade standards need accountability for two reasons:
1. So that fair trade really means fair wages and transformed communities.
2. So that when you load up your grocery cart, you know exactly what you are supporting.

* (Please note that since the writing of this series, Fair Trade USA has since revised some their standards.)
**(Please note that Equal Exchange has since left Fair Trade USA and joined arms with Fair Trade For Life).