The concept of labeling products as fairly traded – where fair prices are paid for all ingredients, especially to suppliers in developing countries — would seem to be a concept that would have everyone on board. No one wants to rip off peasant farmers trying to eke out a living in the third world.

Trouble is, there’s no consensus on what “fair trade” really means, despite the above, generally accepted meaning. As with many sticky and tricky policies, it depends on whom you ask. Even Fair World Project (FWP), a not-for-profit advocate of the practice, disagrees with one major industrial nation about what’s fair trade material and what’s not.

Russia, right? China? OK, the French. Time to start making Freedom Fries again, isn’t it?

Nope.

The good old U.S. of A. has a conflict with FWP. Particularly when it comes to that essential staple of daily human life, chocolate. Which sounds more than a little odd. After all, don’t we, as Americans, want to do what we can to help struggling nations – made up of struggling, oppressed people – maximize their natural resources so as to enjoy a better life? Isn’t that part of the American way?

Separate and un-equal?

According to several reports from Confectionery News, FWP, which is separate from Fair Trade USA, says that the stateside group’s labeling policy permits chocolate to bear an official Fair Trade seal, even though the product contains “a high percentage of other ingredients like sugar that are not fairly traded.”

One CN report quotes FWP as calling out changes in Fair Trade USA’s labeling policy:

Fair Trade USA is electing to maintain its subpar threshold of just 20% fair trade contents to use a front panel label on a product with no requirement to list the percentage of fair trade ingredients.

As a result, says FWP, the changes in policy effectively mean that a chocolate bar that contains more milk and sugar than it does cocoa products can still give the appearance of being fairly traded.

By contrast, IMO’s Fair for Life insists on a minimum of 50% fairly traded ingredients in order to earn the official seal of approval. And in case you didn’t know – Fair Trade USA is also a separate organization from Fair Trade International, which has different rules for slapping labels on products. That’s a whole other kettle of fish, but nonetheless significant: The most powerful country in the world has a separate policy – not just for how it polices the world – but for how developing countries supply their raw materials for luxury food items.

“The parties of the first part defer to the parties of the second part, except when…”

So what does Fair Trade USA have to say about the cocoa dustup? CN quotes a FT USA communications manager as saying,

Given that Fair Trade currently focuses on products imported from developing countries, many products can only reach approximately 20% in their Fair Trade content because most of their ingredients (like milk or flour) are produced domestically.Jenna Larson, Fair Trade USA, Communications Manager

The flak went on to say that something like, say, a brownie could have cocoa and sugar that are Fair Trade certified, but, for some reason the flour can’t be. And because U.S.-grown sugar ends up meeting about 70 to 75% of domestic demand, most of the sugar Americans consume can’t be labeled as Fair Trade-certified.

After some deliberation, the flak pointed out, FT USA changed its policies so that products having more than 20% of Fair Trade ingredients can be labeled as “Fair Trade Certified Ingredients”, with only those products with 100% legit ingredients earning the “Fair Trade Certified” designation.

Clear as can be, right? Except if you’re 40-ish and forgot to bring your reading glasses to the store so as to discern that mighty difference in labeling. And let’s not even get started on the idea that Fair Trade International also uses a 20% threshold. Except, as CN adds, “…if a certified ingredient is available it must be used even if supply usually comes domestically from non-certified sources.”

Do as I label, not as I do

So where does this leave well-intentioned U.S. consumers? Can the Fair Trade labels, even necessarily magnified for comprehension, be trusted? Assuming that no one mislabels or, pardon the pun, fudges on the proportion of ingredients, are two labels enough to inform people about whether their purchase is eventually benefitting the people who labored to bring them their food?

More to the point, what are the chief motives for labeling Fair Trade products? If the program, such as it is in splintered form, is going to have any real meaning – other than as “greenwashing”, where companies tout their charitable and/or green efforts more than they practice them – there ought to be some clear standards about which products deserve the label and which don’t.

Sounds only fair, doesn’t it?

Now, pass the chocolate, please.

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