The Illusion of Transparency

For most people who have shopped at Whole Foods or purchased a high quality chocolate bar from most health food stores, the labels “USDA Organic” and “Fair Trade” are almost as commonplace as anything associated with health food, or ‘conscious’ consumption of products. Yet, most people who buy these products have little knowledge regarding its context, and the ultimate journey it has made before finding itself at the retailer. It’s essential to know that not everything organic, is fair trade, not everything fair trade is organic, many are both, and some are neither. One might ask the question, what is fair trade? It is one of the most popular labels you’ll see on products in the US is the Fair Trade USA, or FTA, label. FTA is a non-profit 501(c)3 organization that certifies products as Fair Trade for companies.  The big question is how do products actually qualify as fair trade, and are fair trade products actually living up to their promise?

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The FTA attempts to certify and investigate business transactions between suppliers and corporations – often suppliers are based in in developing nations.  In an ideal world, this process of certification and investigation would ensure ensures that suppliers are compensated through fair pay, while they are able to work in safe environments.  The FTA also seeks to restrict the use of pesticides and fertilizers while prohibiting GMOs (genetically modified organisms), so that  the health of the farmers and the ecosystem in general can be preserved.
The Fair Trade program also seeks to educate business owners and farmers so that they can understand global markets and understand the economic ramifications of their transactions.  Fair Trade helps about 1.2 million farmers in different nations all around the world, including Africa, Asia and Latin America. The ideal of Fair Trade is to sustain and create a marketplace where improved living conditions, wages and fair prices are sustained while completely eliminated ing slave and child labor. For this to happen, direct relationships between producers and importers is essential, which is partially why education is essential. However, in the past few years, Fair Trade certification has become ambiguous, particularly within Fair Trade USA.

For years, the associated corrupt abuse of capitalist colonialism has been an enduring epidemic for the cocoa industry since the chocolate has been consumed by European masses. While the lucid reality of the child labor laws and the ambiguity of many free trade laws might not be apparent, or appreciated, by the vast majority of consumers, there are still many companies that endeavor to advocate change in their practices and their commercial structuring so their profits are equally and fairly distributed to farmers, and those who have been historically disenfranchised by the industry. The reason the FTA exists, in theory, is to elevate these companies over the others who do not choose to practice ethical work laws. Unfortunately, in the last few years, Fair Trade USA has become slightly more convoluted and unethical in its presentation of its certifications. And many products and companies do a disservice to the community as a whole by cashing in on some cheap “wholistic” or “healthy” image without educating the consumer or elucidating the true nature of their product in their marketing material, with an approved FTA certification. Who is being benefited by the hypothetical sale of the chocolate, what is the true context of the product’s mission, or just how would this product make a tangible difference to the farmers when only part of its contents contain products that are actually fair trade? The illusion of transparency is another danger is Free Trade marketing material, along with these companies that seek to associate themselves with free trade movements. For example, under Fair Trade USA’s current labeling system, and this is especially a danger for milk chocolate brands, these companies can use the Fair Trade Certification logo while only having to utilize ingredients that will give the Certification which is only a percentage — “32%” (1) for most milk chocolate — of the whole product. According to fairworldproject.org, “a brand that buys cheap sugar through an exploitative supply chain… will get to use the same fair trade seal as brands like Equal Exchange and Alter Eco who use 70-100% fair trade ingredients”.

This proves that merely showing the Fair Trade certification logo on a product does not often represent the whole, accurate story — and it actively can be considered false advertising in a very tangible sense. The majority of individuals who would care to buy Free Trade Certified products, at least from an ideological perspective, would be appalled to know that money from their sale is directed to support potentially dangerous industries that could contain child-labour and colonialist oppression.

Unfortunately, in the last few years, Fair Trade USA has become slightly more convoluted and unethical in its presentation of its certifications. And many products and companies do a disservice to the community as a whole by cashing in on some cheap “wholistic” or “healthy” image without educating the consumer or elucidating the true nature of their product in their marketing material, with an approved FTA certification. Who is being benefited by the hypothetical sale of the chocolate, what is the true context of the product’s mission, or just how would this product make a tangible difference to the farmers when only part of its contents contain products that are actually fair trade? The illusion of transparency is another danger is Free Trade marketing material, along with these companies that seek to associate themselves with free trade movements.

For example, under Fair Trade USA’s current labeling system, and this is especially a danger for milk chocolate brands, these companies can use the Fair Trade Certification logo while only having to utilize ingredients that will give the Certification which is only a percentage — “32%” (1) for most milk chocolate — of the whole product. According to fairworldproject.org, “a brand that buys cheap sugar through an exploitative supply chain… will get to use the same fair trade seal as brands like Equal Exchange and Alter Eco who use 70-100% fair trade ingredients”. This proves that merely showing the Fair Trade certification logo on a product does not often represent the whole, accurate story — and it actively can be considered false advertising in a very tangible sense. The majority of individuals who would care to buy Free Trade Certified products, at least from an ideological perspective, would be appalled to know that money from their sale is directed to support potentially dangerous industries that could contain child-labour and colonialist oppression.

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The illusion of transparency is another danger of Free Trade marketing material, along with these companies that seek to associate themselves with free trade movements. For example, under Fair Trade USA’s current labeling system, and this is especially a danger for milk chocolate brands, these companies can use the Fair Trade Certification logo while only having to utilize ingredients that will give the Certification which is only a percentage — “32%” (1) for most milk chocolate — of the whole product. According to fairworldproject.org, “a brand that buys cheap sugar through an exploitative supply chain… will get to use the same fair trade seal as brands like Equal Exchange and Alter Eco who use 70-100% fair trade ingredients”. This proves that merely showing the Fair Trade certification logo on a product does not often represent the whole, accurate story — and it actively can be considered false advertising in a very tangible sense. The majority of individuals who would care to buy Free Trade Certified products, at least from an ideological perspective, would be appalled to know that money from their sale is directed to support potentially dangerous industries that could contain child-labour and colonialist oppression.

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Unfortunately there are no public marketing initiatives that elucidate or clearly delineate the intent, or motivation, of Fair Trade certifications that are handed out in this nature. It can be difficult to effectively communicate the ideological underpinnings of what needs to be communicated to the masses if a true difference is going to be made, especially if that must be accomplished against a centuries old industry that has been abusing and obfuscating its internal process to consumers for years. And it doesn’t help that the vast majority of free trade advertisements that sell chocolate utilize on some kind of cheap guilt, guilt without facts, that essentially builds the consumer up, as if their sale makes them a savior of some kind. Without educating the consumer, they will blindly grab whatever green label sports the ‘right’ certification, even if that certification is used by brands who have not earned it.

Back in 2011, Fair Trade USA drew the ire of many fair trade advocates when it unveiled lower fair trade standards in order to welcome more companies into the certification.  In fact, on October 19, 2011, the Fair World Project put out a rather vehement press release on the FTA’s new agenda, which was mostly interpreted as catering to larger companies while essentially undermining the entire fair trade philosophy. Here is a press release of the commentary in its entirety (http://bit.ly/10AYfed). This excerpt, however, is probably the most disturbing point:
“…under the new FTUSA labeling standards, a “fair trade” chocolate bar could in fact contain sugar, vanilla or cocoa produced using child or forced labor, even though all these ingredients are commercially available in fair trade form.” It is currently allowed for companies to use a Fair Trade label that looks, for all intents and purposes, identical to a fully certified product, while only possessing as little as 20% of Fair Trade certified ingredients.  A fair trade label can be worn on a product that possesses 80% non-fair trade approved material. If this isn’t a breach of transparency and honestly, I don’t know what is. Organizations like FairTrade International (FLO), and FairTrade International USA, however, are tireless examples of transparency in message, substance and marketing that focuses on the right messages, without compromising their certification process.  This is a linkFairTrade America website: http://fairtradeamerica.org/

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The ultimate takeaway is that you’re bound to see more and more generic certifications of fair trade on products in the future, and consumers are challenged to be more socially conscious and aware of certifications, marketing materials and reality of what’s being presented in front of them. When in doubt, just look for the FairTrade International certification!

 

WORKS CITED

http://fairtradeamerica.org/
Martin, Carla (2016). Lecture: Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. Cambridge, MA
Allison, Melissa. “Fair-trade Theo Chocolate fairly booming.” Seattle Times, 04 April 2013. Web. 08 May 2016.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. Print.

Lurie, Stephen. You care about where your food comes from, don’t you care about who grew and picked it. Vox.com. April 2nd, 2015.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. Print.

 

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