October 2010 Issue

Fair Trade — Make Food Dollars Work Toward Sustainability and Justice
By Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 12 No. 10 P. 90

Step inside Theo Chocolate’s factory in Seattle and the scent of deep, rich chocolate infuses your senses. On its website, the company notes that it is the only organic, fair-trade, bean-to-bar chocolate factory in the United States. What's more, it offers educational tours and tastings.

Last spring, the leadership team of the American Dietetic Association’s Hunger and Environmental Nutrition dietetic practice group toured the factory to learn about fair trade firsthand.

"Ask us questions to hold us accountable," our tour guide, Rachel, cheerily offered as she marched us into the classroom. Our group included several elementary school children, and I was especially interested to hear how our leader would explain the environmental, economic, and social complexities of trade to a bunch of kids who were probably most interested in the tasting part of the tour.

But Rachel's interactive style and bubbly personality held everyone's attention. Beginning with an ecological message, she described how everything in our ecosystem is connected and therefore why organic farming methods are important. "If we contaminate our water with pesticides, that's a disaster," Rachel said matter-of-factly.

Next she spoke about a concept most children innately understand: fairness. "It's imperative that we treat farmers fairly," she insisted, "because they work so hard to bring us good chocolate." In describing the unfair working conditions and inadequate pay common in the chocolate industry, Rachel said, "It's not fair, it's not cool, and you guys don't want to be a part of that."

Then she added, "Paying farmers a fair wage gives us peace of mind. It's a way you can feel empowered as a consumer."

No wonder Theo chocolate tastes so good.   

Catalyst for Global Trade Justice
The not-for-profit organization Green America describes fair trade as a system of exchange based on direct relationships between buyers and producers. It helps ensure farmers throughout the developing world receive a fair price while upholding environmental and labor rights standards. For example, forced child labor is prohibited.1,2

While not all fair-trade products are certified organic, the Fair Trade certification system prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms and favors environmentally sustainable farming methods that protect farmers' health and preserve the ecosystem.2 TransFair USA, a certifier of fair-trade products, says the Fair Trade Certified label "enables consumers to vote for a better world with their dollars."
In addition to chocolate, Fair Trade Certified agricultural products include coffee, tea, fruit, sugar, rice, and vanilla. They are available in more than 35,000 retail establishments in the United States thanks to consumer demand. That's where dietitians play a key role.

Dietitians as Change Agents
Jasia Steinmetz, PhD, RD, CD, teaches in the health promotion and human development department at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. She believes that "fair trade has brought many corollary issues into our food system conversation." For example, "The fair trade designation gives us a template for looking more critically at our global food system."

Those in charge of institutional food purchases can have a tremendous impact. Christine McCullum-Gomez, PhD, RD, a consultant based in Houston, says, "Food and nutrition professionals can support a more socially just food system by purchasing fair-trade products."

McCullum-Gomez supports Equal Exchange, one of the largest worker cooperatives in the United States. "Their fair-trade products—and accompanying educational materials—are a great way to educate others about fair trade and principles related to economic, environmental, and social sustainability," she notes.

Rob Everts, co-executive director of Equal Exchange, recognizes that many Americans "crave an authentic way to incorporate their values into their everyday purchases." While not all fairly traded products come from small independent producers, Equal Exchange "consciously buys directly from small farmer cooperatives instead of through myriad middlemen who take a bite out of the ultimate dollar along the way," he explains.

"Given all the greenwashing and unilateral corporate claims," Everts believes that "third-party verification of claims is a good thing." He sees dietitians as having a unique role in encouraging consumers to question their food’s source and look for fairly traded products.

Positive Effects
Elysa Hammond, corporate ecologist for Clif Bar & Company, learned the power of serving fair-trade coffee at her church. Her social justice committee "found it inspiring to be part of a growing movement among churches to generate a positive impact on the lives of the coffee farmers who were so essential to their Sunday morning tradition."

Hammond understands that "collectively, the purchasing power generated by Sunday coffee hours across the nation is very significant."  But one day, a woman at church pulled Hammond aside and said, "This fair-trade coffee has changed my life. I see everything differently now." The concept of fair trade allowed her to see how people’s daily decisions impact workers and the environment worldwide.

Black Gold
Like the epiphany Hammond's friend experienced, the producers of the movie Black Gold promise that once people see their film, their coffee will never taste the same.

Black Gold follows coffee’s complex journey from poor farmers in Ethiopia to elitist baristas in the European Union and the United States, ultimately reminding viewers of the great chasm between their mouths and the source of their food. As viewers watch commodity traders in New York and London setting coffee prices amidst harsh images of hungry Ethiopian children at therapeutic feeding centers, they see how coffee touches us all.

I first saw Black Gold a few years ago at a community film festival in Columbia, Mo. Codirector Nick Francis attended the screening and explained that coffee farmers face hunger and poverty as the result of unjust world trade policies. The impoverished coffee farmers Francis interviewed have no idea how much individuals pay for a cup of coffee. But they recognize charity is not the answer; they understand that trade is more important than aid. 

The coffee farmers in Black Gold don’t ask for much. They’d like nutritious food, clean clothes, and the opportunity for their children to go to school.

“Coffee is entrenched in our culture,” Francis explained. "Consumers can make a difference.”

The Bottom Line
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy explains that fair-trade coffee has the potential for powerful positive economic and environmental change.  It helps “guarantee that no one human becomes obscenely rich by making another human disgracefully poor.“

Erin Gorman, CEO of Divine Chocolate USA, has witnessed the transformative power of ownership and dignity resulting from fair-trade policies in Ghana. However, she also recognizes that the "social justice issues we address today won't be the same as tomorrow's."

According to the International Labor Rights Forum, "No certification program can offer a 100% guarantee that labor rights abuses do not occur in certified facilities." Rather, the organization notes that a key component of a strong certification program is a reliable system to identify and remediate violations.

Gorman knows that "any system is only as good as the watch guards."

— Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD, is a freelance writer, speaker, and radio host based in Columbia, Mo. She prefers her chocolate dark, organic, and fairly traded.

1. Green America. Fair trade. Available at: http://www.greenamericatoday.org/programs/fairtrade
2. TransFair USA. Fair trade certified. Available at: http://www.transfairusa.org/content/resources/faq.php


How to Find and Promote Just Food
• Ask questions. Know where your food comes from and the conditions under which it was produced.
• Seek independent third-party certifications.
• Match your values with the foods you purchase.
• Look for and support the Fair Trade Certified label.
• Set an example and empower others. Share websites. Host a public, professional, or community film screening and discussion.

— MH