A growing number of consumers have begun to notice the Fair Trade certification mark on food products, especially coffee and tea. Fair Trade certified food products from Latin America in particular are becoming sought after by the popular market, which has become increasingly concerned about labor practices associated with imported food. A number of organizations work to promote Fair Trade certification, working in cooperation with providers in developing nations and purchasers in the first world.
Fair Trade began in 1988, when a fall in coffee prices triggered an economic crisis for developing nations marketing coffee. The fall in prices hit small farmers first, and the Netherlands was the first country to promote Fair Trade certification, through a fictional Dutch character named Max Havelaar, who opposed the exploitation of workers in Dutch colonies. In the mid 1990s, Fair Trade certification began to capture the popular imagination, with a number of international organizations working together to set standards and develop labels.
Fair Trade certification is not just about paying farmers and workers fairly. It is also about promoting education and developing more sustainable trade ties with other nations. Fair Trade certification involves voluntary cooperation with a certifying organization and usually reflects an international effort between companies and their suppliers. Today, coffee and cacao are the two most commonly certified crops, because both industries traditionally exploited their workers. However, any crop or product could be Fair Trade certified.
To be Fair Trade certified, a company must guarantee that their suppliers do not use child or slave labor, that workers are paid a fair living wage, that employment opportunities are available to all workers and that everyone has an equal opportunity for advancement, and that healthy working and living conditions are provided for workers. In addition, producers must agree to support the educational and technical needs of their workforce, while promoting active and healthy trade agreements and being open to public accountability. Fair Trade certification also often involves environmentally sustainable production and harvest practices, encouraging a stable market and a healthy Earth. Fair Trade certification also usually involves a respect for cultural heritage and encourages cultural exchange between nations rather than the smothering of traditions. Many Fair Trade products include information about the people who grow them and the world they live in, making every cup of coffee an education.
Most Fair Trade certification is governed by Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO), a group of 20 Fair Trade labelers around the world who have set mutual standards and agree to certify and enforce them. In the United States, TransFair USA represents FLO, and numerous companies work with TransFair to achieve Fair Trade certification. Fair Trade products are sometimes more expensive on the shelf, although they probably cost less in terms of human suffering and environmental damage than conventional products. As more companies are working towards Fair Trade certification, the cost is beginning to come down, encouraging consumers to make ethical, healthy, and sustainable choices about the source of their food.