Fair Trade: An ethical revolution in the chocolate labor supply chain or a visual marketing technique?

The world of artisan, high-quality chocolate, the likes of which can be found at specialty stores like Whole Foods, is not just selling you its chocolate. The packaging on these premium chocolate bars is overflowing with a multitude of seals and logos, from Fair Trade to USDA Organic to Gluten-Free. Whether this is a result of companies taking increased responsibility for labor practices and ethical concerns in their supply chain, a reaction to consumer demand for ethically-sourced products, or simply a convenient marketing technique, chocolate manufacturers have started incorporating new standards, which go beyond just taste, into their products and packaging in order to appeal to consumers’ moral sensibility. The proliferation of different licensing organizations, particularly around Fair Trade, has made chocolate consumption into a logo-oriented process, in which the number of seals on the packaging serves as a stand-in for the quality or morality of the product, regardless of what actual standards and real-world impact the product has.

History of Fair Trade

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Two examples of the fair trade logo or seal, which appears on packaging and is now recognized by 50% of the population (Doherty 694).

When I surveyed the chocolate bar selection at my local Whole Foods, Fair Trade was one the most common seals I saw on the packaging – its not surprising that retailers are inclined to include it, as the Fair Trade logo is now recognized by 50% of the population (Doherty 694). Fair Trade USA self-defines its organizational mission as helping “farmers in developing countries build sustainable businesses that positively influence their communities” (Fair Trade USA). The idea is that chocolate bearing a Fair Trade logo uses cacao produced by farmers who are “justly compensated,” which means a $200 premium per ton of cacao over the commodity price (Fairtrade and Cocoa). Basic fair trade principles include prompt payment of fair prices and wages, no child labor, safe working conditions, and investment in community development projects.

In terms of economic theory, Fair Trade is an approach that perceives quality as the fundamental concept for the analysis of economic life, as opposed to neo-classical theory, in which the price mechanism encapsulates all the required information about a product (Renard 87). Instead of this price-oriented model, Fair Trade is, as Goodman describes it, an attempt to “reconnect producers and consumers economically, politically, and psychologically through the creation of a transnational moral economy” (Goodman 891). In order to do so, it must make capitalism appear “nice,” by fostering ethical relationships with growers through a range of economic and non-economic benefits, such as higher wages and community development. It must also expand into the mainstream of the “Euro-American consumption-scape,” getting its products into “coffeehouses, multiples, the charity shop, and the candy aisle at one’s alternative grocer,” like Whole Foods (Goodman 892).

The fair trade model, at its core, has several implications: it reaffirms a belief in capitalism and the market as capable of just distribution by enabling farmers in developing countries to better compete within existing capitalistic structures; it promotes a shift away from pure aid and instead puts an increased emphasis on development and trade; and finally, produces the ideal of “individualized shopping for a better world” (Doherty 697), in which responsibility for the poverty of farmers lies not with international organizations or governments, but with everyday consumers and their personal choices.

Existing controversies over Fair Trade

However, critiques of Fair Trade abound. Fair Trade retail sales in the US are over $1.5 billion, but there is little evidence of its impact, and it is unclear how much of that money reaches developing countries and the farmers themselves. In fact, a study conducted by the School of Oriental and African Studies in London found that “wages are typically lower, and on the whole conditions worse, for workers in areas with Fairtrade organizations than for those in other areas” (Cramer). Additionally, the study found that the “community” projects supported with funds generated by the “social premium” were not actually for community use – they give an example of one Fairtrade tea co-operative in which “the modern toilets funded with the premium were exclusively for the use of senior co-op managers” (Cramer).

The certification process for Fair Trade is long, challenging, and expensive, which automatically favors wealthier larger farmers – there is also no way to prove that the workers are the ones getting the benefits of the extra payout, especially when its going to developing countries in which corruption is rife and enforcement is difficult (Marchmont). The Fair Trade system also hurts non-certified farmers, who’s products may even very well be higher in quality than the products of their Fair Trade compatriots. This is because once a farmer is certified Fair Trade, he is guaranteed to be paid the Fair Trade premium, so there is no quality incentive to produce a high-quality product, as explained nicely in the following video on coffee, The Fair Trade Shell Game:


Finally, the marketing around Fair Trade is often misleading, particularly in the US where a product does not need to be comprised of 100% Fair Trade ingredients in order to utilize the logo on the packaging. Not only are the standards constantly changing, there is also an enormous proliferation of certifying bodies, from Fair Trade to Rainforest Alliance to Equal Exchange to Fair for Life, that it poses an immense challenge for consumers to be truly savvy and aware of the implications and standards of each when they’re faced with a display of chocolate packaging. Low uses the term “clean-washing” to describe Fair Trade’s “halo effect,” which is “derived by mainstream retailers who sell only a small percentage of fair trade products” but who gain the moral benefits across all their products, as well as the consumer confusion of products labeled “fairly traded” when they are separate from and do not conform to the principles of Fair Trade (495).

A lazy pathway to moral high ground

The principles Fair Trade espouses are particularly appealing to Western consumers, because it plays into both the digital-age phenomena of “slacktivism” and the old trope of the white man’s burden. Low writes, “Ethical consumerism is a seductive concept because it suggests the transformative power of individual choice and action. It is also a message of inclusion – all consumers can, through the simple act of choosing one good in preference to another, create positive social and/or environmental change” (495). It is significant that the Fair Trade movement is prominent with artisan chocolate sold at an upscale, pricier grocery store like Whole Foods – there is no Hershey’s bar with a Fair Trade logo on it in your local CVS. Fair Trade is trying to target a specific white, upper-middle class demographic with growing pocketbooks and simultaneous growing awareness of their own privilege.

Fair Trade offers a quick fix for assuaging feelings of guilt and a quick pathway to moral self-satisfaction. Similar to the modern phenomena of ‘slacktivism,’ in which people feel as if they’re contributing to a cause simply by posting or tweeting about it over social media, people feel that they are making a significant difference simply by purchasing one chocolate bar over another. One of the most prominent examples of slacktivism was the #KONY 2012 movement run by Invisible Children, which garnered incredible outpouring of support and attention on social media, but ultimately failed to mobilize much action on the ground and was forgotten in just a few months. Sarah Kendzior described the video for it in an Al Jazeera article as embodying the slacktivist ethos, with “viewers oblivious to a complex foreign conflict made heroic by watching a video, buying a bracelet, hanging a poster” (Kendzior). Ultimately, movements like Fair Trade and other slacktivist movements necessitate only minimal effort and superficial involvement, and require no real behavioral change or reduction in consumption. In fact, Fair Trade and other movements could even be worsening the problem: by clean-washing products and supply chains to appear as if they are very ethical and sustainable, they not only lull consumers into thinking the problem is being solved one chocolate bar at a time, they also make people ignorant of the large-scale structural violence and injustices that perpetuate inequalities between the global North and the global South and keep farmers in poverty and unethical working conditions.

Thus, even if Fair Trade is not intended to be a one-stop-shop for all ethical problems in the cacao labor supply chain, its marketing is in fact doing quite some damage. Fair Trade’s marketing effectiveness hinges on its ability to convince you that your own individual choices in the grocery store are directly impactful in a big way, which is a ridiculous and almost patronizing notion. The trope of white man’s burden is repeated, in sending messages that it is up to white, wealthy consumers in America and Europe to shell out a little more cash in order to lift these struggling farmers out of poverty. In actuality, Fair Trade has little evidence of making a significant difference in farmers’ lives; perhaps all it lifts is the consumer’s own moral self-satisfaction.

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A political cartoon depicting the white man’s burden: the US and the UK carrying developing countries, like China, India, and Cuba, on their backs up a hill towards “civilization.”

Even if this is casting Fair Trade in a harsh light, Low points out that “a key critique of modern “ethical consumerism” has been its individualized nature which pits individuals against global institutions to solve global problems” (496). Its lack of collective focus means it becomes a neutralized and ineffective campaign.

Fair trade – a marketing technique

The fact that Fair Trade is “forged semiotically” (Goodman) through the packaging, logos, symbols, and design of the products and their packaging, means that visuals become key to creating the networks and emotional connection between consumer and producer. What this meant for me, in my trip to Whole Foods, was a visual sensory overload on the chocolate packaging, overflowing with a variety of quality seals and logos, in an effort to convince me, the consumer, that sheer quantity was a reference to quality.

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6 chocolate bars that I found at my local Whole Foods chocolate display, each with multiple certification seals.

Some packages have 2-3 seals competing for the consumer’s attention. The different certifying bodies are also confusing – everything from Fair Trade, to Rainforest Alliance, to USDA Organic, Fair for Life, Non-GMO, Gluten Free, One World, Equal Exchange, and Whole Trade. The last is particularly interesting, as it is Whole Foods’ own self-created certification body, making it an excellent illustration of the redundant and unnecessary proliferation of certifications, simply for the sake of creating a busier product packaging. Equal Exchange is also interesting, because it clearly seems to mimic fair trade principles, and writes ‘fairly traded’ on the packaging, but like Low described with “clean-washing,” it isn’t officially affiliated or regulated by Fair Trade USA, so its standards and impact are unclear. Ultimately, it felt to me as if these certifying bodies and their stamp of approval had devolved into more of a marketing technique than a genuine effort to make an ethical product.

Ways to change

For chocolate manufacturers, it should not be about collecting certification stamps like Boy Scout badges to be displayed on their packaging. Nor should chocolate be about checking off a list of the trendiest consumer concerns of the day, like Organic, Gluten-Free, and Fair Trade, only to move beyond them when the consumers stop taking interest. If these certification seals are to have any real significance to customers, and more importantly, real significance to the farmers and the causes they claim to help, there needs to be a simplification, unification, and regulation of certifying bodies. The sheer quantity of organizations makes for a confusing consumer experience, and leads to customer confusion and disinterest. The lack of transparency and clarity about what each seal really means and what impact each organization really has renders these seals ultimately meaningless, because it makes accountability very difficult.

Most importantly, chocolate producers cannot think only in terms of marketing. The certification seals should not be functioning as a marketing technique, as they currently do. And if these certification seals are here to stay as the industry standard for addressing ethics in labor supply chains, chocolate manufacturers should not be focusing on accumulating the most logos on the packaging, but about the actual quality, accountability, and impact of the standards themselves, as well as the quality of the product. Once that shift in thinking happens, I would hope that the quality and impact of the chocolate and its production process would speak for itself.


Cramer, Christopher. (2014, May 24). Harsh truths are necessary if Fairtrade is to change the lives of the very poor. The Guardian.

Doherty, Bob. (2006). “Radical mainstreaming” of fairtrade: the case of The Day Chocolate Company. Equal Opportunities International, 27(7), 693-711.

Fairtrade and Cocoa: Commodity Briefing. Fairtrade Foundation. August 2011.

Fair Trade USA. Website.

Goodman, Michael. (2004). Reading fair trade: political ecological imaginary and the moral economy of fair trade foods. Political Geography, 23, 891-915.

Kendzior, Sarah. (2012, April 5). The subjectivity of slacktivism. Al Jazeera.

Low, William. (2005). Has the medium (roast) become the message? International Marketing Review, 22(5), 494-511.

Marchmont, Sarah. (2010). Some caution that fair trade isn’t always fair to the worker. Medill Reports Chicago.

Renard, Marie-Christine. (2003). Fair trade: quality, market and conventions. Journal of Rural Studies, 19, 87-96.


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