When you purchase a commercial food product, do you ever wonder where the ingredients come from? Do you contemplate how your produce got from the farm to your store? Or maybe you've even questioned how the seed became the fruit itself.
Nowadays, a food can have a lot of labels on it that try to answer these questions. Still, when you see a Fair Trade seal on a chocolate bar, have you ever asked yourself what that really meant? To the farmers and organizations that support it, Fair Trade can mean a lot.
Real solutions for food producers
Almonds, cashew, cacao, bananas, coffee — common foods that each come with their own story. Some travel from large production plants; others from small family farms. Smaller-scaled farms often adopt regenerative food growing practices that rely on only natural products to grow their food. They collaborate with worker-owned cooperatives and Fair Trade organizations to support their farm and workers.
"Part of Fair Trade means paying farmers fair wages and protecting them against market fluctuations," said Katherine Prince, Vice President of Marketing at Eat Your Coffee. Ethical farming supporters, consumers, and large trade organizations all share a role.
In the US, Equal Exchange is a recognized Fair Trade worker co-op that works to improve farmers’ standard of living. Their quest began with one question: “What if food could be traded in a way that is honest and fair, a way that empowers both farmers and consumers?” By working with international communities that share the same vision, they've made that a reality.
A quick read through EE’s blog reveals their deep commitment to their farmer partners around the world. Beyond monetary donations, Equal Exchange workers often go out of their way to develop tangible solutions to address small-farm needs. For example, when a cashew farm plant in El Salvador was about to close due to flooding, Equal Exchange representatives quickly travelled down to assess how to keep them in business. The solution was to pay higher than usual prices for the farm’s cashews so the plant would stay open and support its workers. This had a rippling effect. Because the farm kept operating, it later received a larger government project to implement organic cashew production in its area and provide technical assistance for other local farms to continue the trend.
Fair Trade organizations work to address market issues as well. One example is how banana pricing can be improved between the “cheap banana” market reality in the US and the costs of production that’s just as real. In this case, Equal Exchange staff spent seven days in Ecuador with its entire banana supply chain to discuss how they can build an alternative model for the banana industry that would recognize the complexity that goes into growing and supplying bananas. Finding a solution is an ongoing project, but every one of its members is committed to continue building relationships and roadmaps that prioritize fair market practices and farmers’ well-being.
“The need and the debt that’s owed to the agricultural systems across the world is enormous and it can’t be born on the backs of producers,” said Todd Caspersen, director of purchasing and production at Equal Exchange.There needs to be more investment in the Fair Trade sector, Todd added, whether it’s gathering multiple cooperatives to decide on how to make the ethical food production system sustainable and mainstream; helping farmers navigate through complex import policies, quota systems, and tariffs; or increasing awareness of fairly traded products so farmers can keep doing what they love.
Benefiting small communities
An important aspect of Fair Trade is it provides a direct channel for consumers and organizations to support community development. "It’s a movement towards more sustainable environmental and social standards," said Katherine Prince.
Food cooperatives often use profit generated from Fair Trade sales to improve the livelihood of citizens and communities. This has recently inspired SunSelect, a food producer based in Canada, to certify all of its produce Fair Trade. In the company’s experience, the certification can make a big difference in a farming community.
“Approximately 135 employees, including roughly 120 men and women from rural areas in Guatemala who travel to work with us annually, have used the premiums earned through the sale of SunSelect Fair Trade Certified peppers to address urgent needs in their communities and invest in future income for their families,” stated Edith Gubiotti, SunSelect’s vice president of human resource and administration. Every Fair Trade sale gives their farm workers Community Development Premiums, which go into a dedicated bank account to fund the most pressing social, economic, and environment development projects.
In another example, the National Confederation of Dominican Cacao Producers (CONACADO) distributes its Fair Trade premiums to build and repair local schools and health clinics; support children’s education; and ensure that local residents have access to potable water and electricity.
Community support happens at each tier of the Fair Trade movement — from consumers to companies that choose Fair Trade ingredients to worker cooperatives and Fair Trade establishments that partner with farms and communities. Eat Your Coffee is a part of the food revolution, too. The company sources its coffee ingredient from The Chain Collaborative, a non-profit organization that works with small coffee producers in Africa and Latin America to implement grassroots community development projects; partnering with El Grupo de Mujeres in Ecuador to raise income for local coffee producers so they don’t have to migrate elsewhere for jobs; working with coffee-producing communities in Ethiopia and Rwanda to improve their businesses and fund development programs.
Through the Chain Collaborative, Eat Your Coffee works with non-profit organization Planting Hope to support children’s education in Nicaragua. In another project, Eat Your Coffee works with its coffee-sourcer to fund a revolving loan model in Guatemala so local entrepreneurs can start their own business.
“It’s important for us to have an impact mission,” explained Gabriela Dos Ramos at Eat Your Coffee.
By sourcing ethically-produced coffee, the company empowers itself and its consumers to reach people who are in need. To date, their donations and contributions have helped build a new mobile library school in the Nicaraguan community.
Community members do feel the direct impact: students share that they really like the new library, classes, teachers, dance and music lessons, games, and crafts. Someone, somewhere is grateful to buy a new spool of thread; teach 30 children; receive training and education; and make their own positive contribution.
The Fair Trade movement reinforces ethical business standards that benefit producers, consumers, and the world as a whole. Ask Katherine and the team at Eat Your Coffee what Fair Trade means to them, and they'll answer this: “It means doing business the right way.”
Cultivating the Earth with love
The impact of Fair Trade extends beyond what can be translated into monetary value.
The Burroughs farm in California, for example, is a family-owned farm that grows organic almonds using regenerative agriculture. Different kinds of grasses are planted to fill the space between their almond trees, and native plants line the perimeter of the orchard with the intention of letting nature cultivate nature.
This is a precious ecosystem, said the staff at Equal Exchange when they visited the Burroughs farm this summer. The organization sources its Fair Trade almonds from them. To staff who are familiar with sustainable agriculture, the regenerative farming practice made sense; they saw the purpose of the grasses’ roots as “long, tendriled arms which hold the soil and capture the rain” and knew that the soil can absorb carbon from the atmosphere so it holds water more efficiently and becomes fertile. This natural cultivation cycle is necessary in a world where natural resources are becoming scarce.
Another green farming technique is veganic farming, where vegetation compost, crop rotation, mulching with fallen barks and leaves, and other sustainable practices help to fertilize the soil and allow farm lands to benefit the whole ecosystem — vegetation, crops, animals, air, and soil. To enable us to live in harmony with nature, that is what the Fair Trade label stands for.
Driving through the almost wild almond grove which they feel one with, Equal Exchange workers noted this: “If what you see is chaos, then what you’d be missing is the deliberate intention behind it all.” You’d be missing the root systems of grass among trees, they said, “You’d be missing the rich habitat that the variety of bees, birds, and monarch butterflies all call home.”