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Why Fair Trade Imports Rise Even As Buyers Shun Other Eco-Friendly Products

banana farmer

The Fair Trade stamp of approval has an allure that other eco-friendly products can't match. That's the conclusion we came to after learning that Fair Trade imports of coffee, vanilla, honey, tea, cocoa, sugar, and more have skyrocketed in the past five years—even while sales of "green" household products decline. So what's the Fair Trade secret sauce?

The simple answer is that people are familiar with Fair Trade, a global, organized social movement that ensures workers protect the environment, work in safe conditions, get paid reasonable wages and prices, and receive community development funds. And hearing about those people, like the enterprising banana farmer, pictured above, gets people in the mood to spend. The news about Fair Trade's growing imports comes from Fair Trade USA, the leading third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the U.S.

According to Fair Trade USA, coffee imports (the first Fair Trade USA product) have climbed from 78,000 pounds certified in 1998 to 108 million pounds certified in 2010. Other Fair Trade products have become popular in recent years, too—cocoa saw a 67% growth in imports since 2009, and citrus experienced a 96% increase in growth in 2010. Fair Trade's ever-growing popularity led the organization to start certifying an even wider array of products in 2010, including apparel, vodka, and sports balls (now guaranteed to not be tied together by Chinese political prisoners!).

Not all Fair Trade products are organic—though many of them are—so the program's appeal certainly isn't just about the environment. We have another theory: Fair Trade certifiers are really good about highlighting the human side of the program. The first thing readers see on the Fair Trade USA site is a link to hear about farmers' stories. And the Fair Trade International site is filled with producer stories, like this one:

The Association of Small Producers of Saman and Anexos (APPBOSA) has been Fairtrade certified since the end of 2003. They have used the Fairtrade Premium to construct a cableway to transport their bananas from the trees to the packing stations....Thanks to the cableway, the farmers no longer carry the bunches of bananas on their backs from the tree to the packing station. The cableway takes the strain, improving efficiency and cutting costs. The new system also increases the percentage of non-blemished fruit suitable for export.

After years of being bombarded with stories like this, it's easy to roll your eyes. But human interest stories still pull the heart strings. It's just easier to feel good about buying a farmer—and environment—friendly product when there is a human face behind it. Are you going to spend the extra few cents at the store, or are you going to consign some poor banana farmer to an aching back? Are you really so cruel? Knowing that you're making a difference for a specific village or group of people is a lot easier to comprehend than thinking that you might contribute to some vague planetary future.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Equiterre]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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  • AWAZ Voice For Empowerment

    Ariel: Thank you for highlighting the human connection to Fair Trade, that is often lost in the green craze we are in. I hope more people start to value eco-friendly and social justice equally when they shop.

    Julia: I've been working with the same artisan groups in India for the last three years and continue to buy from them every year, helping to build their management and invest in new designs so they can grow their programs, attract more buyers and create demand for a more ethical global supply chain.

    Fair Trade relationships are based on long term, direct partnerships - Equal Exchange ( has been buying from the same farmers for the last 20+ years, unlike Starbucks who literally 'shops around' every year for someone new.
    Explore more about the principles of these trading relationships here:

    ~ Sarah Mitts

  • Julia Blake

    To play Devil's Advocate, a viable argument against fair trade is its negative impact on incentives. Xavier Sala-i-Martin of Columbia University asserts that those farmers that may benefit from fair trade sales one year are at risk of anticipating high sales the following season when in reality there is no contractual agreement that his crop will be purchased by fair trade buyers again. This means farmers will invest deeply in their next harvest assuming the same buyers will return again. I'd like to know how Fair Trade USA selects and regulates those farmers and what kind of "insurance" they can provide for farmers that produce higher crop yields with the expectations that those buyers will return.

  • Andrew Krause

    Fair Trade items aren't actually significantly more expensive on a dollar basis. Most Americans when confronted with cost vs fairness will insist on fairness at just about any cost. And on an anecdotal note, it doesn't hurt that every fair trade coffee I've tried has been of excellent quality.