Delicious Living Blog

Stop bashing Fair Trade USA

If you want to complain about an aspect of our food system, there are many other organizations that deserve the brunt instead of Fair Trade USA.


I recently wrote an article for Delicious Living magazine about Fair Trade USA certified spices.  Apart from providing a lovely visual of vanilla, nutmeg, ginger, and Ceylon cinnamon, the piece also provides details on the benefits farmers receive from seeking the certification.

From community centers to tuition for children, Fair Trade USA is an exceptional way to establish global prices for goods that, in the past, have been horribly deflated.

But while discussing Fair Trade items with a friend (who happens to own a coffee shop), I realized that Fair Trade USA has seen skepticism from those in the industry after a decision to separate from Fairtrade International (FLO). After working closely with the folks at Fair Trade USA for my story, I saw a need to clear up confusion associated with the organization.

According to Jenna Larson, communications specialist with Fair Trade USA, the certifying agency has always been an independent organization—each year they paid a significant portion of their revenue to FLO. Departing opens up possibilities.

"One of the main reasons we left FLO is because of our desire to expand the reach and impact of the Fair Trade certification," said Larson. "In it's current form, fair trade principles are applied somewhat inconsistently ... starting with coffee, we are adapting existing, successful, fair trade standards and applying them to groups of independent small farmers, as well as farm workers on larger farms (who do not own land and therefore cannot join a cooperative."

Fair Trade USA is implementing these changes slowly with 10 to 20 pilot programs over the next two years.

I'm infuriated when I hear criticism about organizations like Fair Trade USA because I believe it's aimed at the wrong organization. If you want to bash an aspect of our food system, I assure you there are many other companies that better deserve the brunt.

Fair Trade USA isn’t perfect. As companies such as Dr. Bronner's, Harmless Harvest, and Madecasse have shown that responsibly sourcing ingredients can go much farther.

But Fair Trade USA’s certification serves as a model that provides real and tangible benefits for farmers around the world. I expect its departure from FLO to foster continued rewards to farmers—which will trickle up the supply chain all the way to consumers.

Do you think Fair Trade USA is unfairly criticized? Share in the comments.

Discuss this Blog Entry 8

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jul 11, 2012

amen, sister!

Sarah L. (not verified)
on Jul 11, 2012

It shows incredible journalistic intelligence to reach far beyond the immediate controversy and look at the bigger picture. Jenna is spot on: if you really want to criticize an organization about our messed up food system, please target your energy to those contributing to the problem, not the ones trying to help. Fair Trade USA is boldly taking Fair Trade to another level in order to benefit even more people. For this the they should be supported, and then applauded when positive results are shown. Great post, Jenna.

Jonathan Rosenthal (not verified)
on Jul 12, 2012

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I have been involved in fair trade for the past 30 years. As a co-founder of Equal Exchange, I helped introduce the concept to the US food marketplace.

I spent much time working with Paul Rice, CEO of Fair Trade USA, when he was a Sandinista working to help small farmer cooperative hold on to their land. I spent countless hours helping him learn the ropes of the US coffe industry, how to structure pricing for cooperatives and buying the first coffee from his small organization more than 20 years ago.

He has been a friend of mine since that time. However, I believe that the WAY that Fairtrade USA has unilaterally appropriated the intellectual capital of the fair trade movement (even the small point of taking the name Fair Trade USA, instead of the international approach that would have been Fairtrade USA) and of the International network of certifiers, Fairtrade International, undermines the integrity and credibility of all of us involved in fair trade.

It is with a heavy heart that I speak out against anyone working to create more fair trade. But, in this case, the undermining of the role of farmers' organizations, the unaccountable actions, the distortion of certifying intellectual property and even the erasure of the history of fair trade coffee before Fairtrade USA are worthy of speaking out against.

It is the sad truth that we often focus on those that are closest to us rather than those not even attempting to right the wrongs of conventional trade. In this case, FTUSA threatens to undermine the integrity of many organizations, companies and activists.

on Jul 13, 2012

Readers need to know that most of the Fair Trade movement in the US, and the world, see this quite differently than does Ms. Blumenfeld and believe that Fair Trade USA has made some grievous errors over the last 10 months that have to be seriously addressed.

And while we, Equal Exchange, have been one of the most outspoken opponents of Fair Trade USA’s actions you don’t have to take our word for it.

Over 20 companies, all dedicated Fair Trade brands like Dr. Bronner’s, Wholesome Sweeteners, Maggie’s Organics, Café Campesino, Camino, Just Coffee, have rejected the actions of Fair Trade USA – either by dropping them as a certifier &/or by signing public statements and petitions by Equal Exchange or the Fair World Project
(see: & )

Civil society and Fair Trade advocates are in opposition, too, including:
The United Students For Fair Trade
The Fair World Project,
Fair Trade Towns like Fair Trade LA, Fair Trade Austin, & Fair Trade Seattle
The Organic Consumers Association
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (a major Fair Trade proponent), and hundreds of religious congregations across the country.

Retailers are speaking up. For example over 80 consumer food co-operatives have signed Equal Exchange’s public statement. Remember that the nation’s food co-ops were the first to embrace Fair Trade and continue to be the retailer segment most committed to Fair Trade.

Fair Trade USA’s peers – the other certifiers in Canada, Europe and elsewhere – have been unified in their opposition.

And most importantly, the Fair Trade farmers themselves – around the globe – have repeatedly, and adamantly rejected the course taken by Fair Trade USA
(see: “Get a producer point of view” at )

Rodney North

Ryan Zinn (not verified)
on Jul 13, 2012


I find this post troubling. Ms. Blumenfeld apparently spoke with no one other than FTUSA re the current controversy. When FTUSA split from FLO last year, the move was met with broad condemnation by numerous fair trade movement and market organizations and networks, including the World Fair Trade Organization (, the three primary fair trade producer networks from Latin America, Asia and Africa (, United Students for Fair Trade ( and our organization, the Organic Consumers Association's Fair World Project ( FT certifiers, in our opinion, must be accountable to the small producers they allege to support, and the movement as a whole. FTUSA has acted unilaterally, without transparency, violating long held fair trade principles.

As for the issue regarding farmworker justice, which FTUSA claims is behind their move away from FLO, we agree, there must be solidarity in the marketplace for farmworkers as well as small farmers. The question in this case is approach and process. To date, fair trade certification for "hired labor" operations has a mixed record at best. The push to include fair trade certification on plantations was driven by corporate interests for lower cost products, streamlined supply chains and meeting consumer demand for more FT products. FTUSA's drive to include coffee plantations doesn't address past problems with fair trade on plantations (specifically bananas and tea), provide solid standards for workers (, nor address the fact that much of the coffee produced by fair trade small producer cooperatives is still not sold at fair trade prices. There is still much work to be done, but for the transformational impact of fair trade to reach workers and small farmers, the process must be inclusive, transparent and fair. Fair World Project is engaging in and supporting Fairtrade International's (FLO) efforts to address the hired labor sector in the fair trade market ( We believe this process is more transparent, accountable and plural, with broad participation from workers, fair trade advocates, labor unions and NGOs.

Ryan Zinn
OCA's Fair World Project

Monika Firl (not verified)
on Jul 16, 2012

I wholeheartedely agree with Ryan, and was also going to suggest to Ms Blumfield that if she is confounded by the criticisms of that she should really expand her contact list beyond the FT USA staff.

I would ask that we not confuse whether we are talking about "our messed up food system" or the now increasingly "messed up fair trade labels debate". These are certainly linked (and both are being damaged by the same influences of too much control by too few voices being influenced by a couple of large and financially influencial corporations)... but they remain two separate conversations.

This might seem like an unfortunate development for Fair Trade... but likewise, for someone who has watched this story with TF USA unfold over the past 10 years - this outcome is not at all surprizing.

Since 2002, I have worked as producer relations manager at CoopCoffees – a fair trade importing cooperative owned by 23 local, coffee roasting companies in Canada and USA. We have dealt with the TF/FT USA office since their initial launch and have seen the consistent approach of volumes over all (and, believing that the ends justifying the means).

At CoopCoffees we import all of our coffee directly from small-farmer cooperatives because that is what best respresents our values and our understanding of Fair Trade.

An estimated 70% of the world’s total coffee production is cultivated by 10 million small-scale farmers, cultivating less than 10 hectares of land in 80 coffee-producing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The vast majority of them lack access to clean water, basic education, decent housing and all too often adequate food on the table. Add to the mix that most coffee-producing countries have economic policies that favour and incentivize large-scale production and traders – thus, leaving small-scale farmers to struggle for market share on a very uneven playing field, left “to compete” without access to adequate credit, inputs or technology.

Those contradictions and inequalities were precisely what Fair Trade had been attempting to address... using trade as a vehicle to promote sustainable development in farmer communities.

Prior to my work with CoopCoffees, I spent 10 years living in Central America and Mexico and working with small-scale farmer organizations. It was during that time when I learned about the countless obstacles these small-scale farmers face and the critical importance of their becoming united in well organized and economically viable cooperatives.

It’s a catchy phrase “changing the world one cup at a time” but we should remind ourselves that purchasing coffee at "fair prices" is only the first step of a very long road. The transformative work has only just begun in farmer communities.... and the possibility for that work to continue depends on our collective capacity to support locally based, farmer organizations.

So for those of us who actually believe in Fair Trade, we really would like to avoid having consumers feeling disempowered or deceived once they discover that the premium price they paid to “support farmers” – actually went to some of the world’s most privileged coffee plantations or multinational traders… and potentially lose confidence in the entire concept of being able to shop according to your values.

It really boils down to a belief in transparency and truth in advertising.

Monika Firl
Cooperative Coffees, producer relations manager

Nicole Vitello (not verified)
on Jul 16, 2012

On behalf of Oké USA, one of America’s only 100% Fair Trade banana importers, we don’t see Fair Trade USA as seeking to “expand the reach and impact of the Fair Trade certification”, but rather to unilaterally _redefine it_, and to do so in a way to make Fair Trade more agreeable to large corporations, not more helpful to farmers. This is one reason earlier this year we dropped Fair Trade USA as our certifier.

Imagine a single certifier controlled 90+% of the organic market and decided to “expand the reach and impact” of organic farming by re-defining ‘organic’ to permit the use of GMO’s. A lot of people would go through the roof, no?

For people who have always lived and breathed Fair Trade that is what the current situation feels like, and why so many folks are not going to let this go. Too much is at stake.

Nicole Vitello


Carlos Vargas (not verified)
on Jul 20, 2012

For many years the Fair Trade Model has involved workers in others certified products, but not in coffee. Why not? Are there differences between a tea or flower worker and the coffee worker?
As a member of the Board of Directors of Fair Trade USA, I have visit and seen the benefits of the FT model for the workers in flowers.. why cannot the coffee workers, also participate in Fair Trade, and improve their quality of life, as happens with workers in other products.
Farm workers are the most needy people in the value chain of coffee industry. I grew up in a coffee farm, and actually with my family, now own a small coffee farm. I am a member of a coffee co-op and have being working at management level of co-ops for more than 33 years, so obviously this is the business model that I support and I consider it the best to empower people. But I do not think that is a reason to monopolize the Fair Trade system.
If the mission of Fair Trade is to secure a better deal for farmers and workers, (as is stated in the FLO Mission) the road for it, is to facilitate access to market and make it grow to a larger scale, to benefit as much people as possible.
I support the Fair Trade for All proposal because a I really think is a step in the right direction, to make the FT model more inclusive and delivering more benefits to people. There are risks and challenges to face, but nothing is easy. Small and pure, sounds great, for the ones that are already in, but for sure not to the thousands of small farmers that are not part of a cooperative or farm workers on coffee estates.

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