Fair Trade USA muddies the waters

by on September 19, 2011

When it comes to the world of Fair Trade (FT), Coffee & Conservation tries to stick to providing basic information to consumers on what the certification means, the specific environmental standards in FT certification, and major news. A recent announcement qualifies as major news that changes the meaning of “Fair Trade” certification in the U.S., and which may mean changes to environmental standards for coffee certified as FT by Fair Trade USA.


Fairtrade International (FLO) is the organization that coordinates labeling initiatives around the globe. FLO develops the FT standards for all FT-certified products, including coffee. Member organizations in other countries use the standards to license and promote FT-certified products. In the United States, the member organization is Fair Trade USA (formerly TransFair USA).

One of the strengths of FT certification was that FLO provided global standards for FT-certified products (coffee being just one of many). Whether or not you agreed that the standards were the right ones to achieve the stated goals, at least you knew that FT-certified products all conformed to the same standards — everyone was on the same page. Even if many consumers don’t have a full understanding of the purpose and means of FT, this single system, applied consistently, has built their trust in the certification.

Break up

Last week, Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) announced it is resigning its membership in the FLO system effective December 31, 2011. The main departure point is that FT certification for coffee has been restricted to cooperatives; for other agricultural products such as bananas or tea, larger estates and other producer models have been able to get FT certification. FTUSA wants to expand the availability of FT certification, starting with coffee.

FTUSA noted that it may revise some of the standards currently being used for FT-certified products. The language in FLO’s response was much clearer:

“Fair Trade USA has announced a new initiative under the banner ‘Fair Trade For All.’ We wish to clarify that the proposals it contains regarding major changes on coffee certification are the views of Fair Trade USA alone, and do not constitute a change to the policy or standards of Fairtrade International (FLO).”

Therefore, FLO has stated as of January 1, 2012, they (FLO) will “no longer be able to accept FTUSA’s certification for sales into other Fairtrade markets under the global Certification Mark.” FTUSA will continue to recognize producer organizations who hold FT certification from FLO.  Eventually, then, a product in the U.S. may have FTUSA’s seal, the FLO seal, or both. Consequently, consumers will have to figure out what the standards are for the certifications.

The FLO global certification mark (seal).

Recap of current standards

At least initially, it appears that the major changes will have to do with who qualifies for FT certification. How or if this will effect the environmental standards is not known at this time. Update: Please see the Quick Guide to Coffee Certifications for graphs that  illustrate that FLO has more criteria or requirements related to the environment and biodiversity than FT USA.

FT environmental standards developed by FLO, as I outlined in a previous post, are fairly generic. They cover ( with a very broad brush) pest management;  general soil, water, and waste management; GMO policy; energy use; and very broadly and non-specifically, biodiversity protection.

New FLO standards were rolled out in early 2011, but not much has changed.  The revised generic environmental standards for all small producers (which apply to coffee), while re-worded, expanded, and providing more detailed guidance, did not substantially strengthen biodiversity protection from previous versions. FLO said this upon the revision:

Revised environmental requirements: Putting people first

The revised environmental requirements in the New Standards Framework keep people at the heart of the Fairtrade system. Strong core criteria protect producers’ health and safety, conserve nature and ban the use of GMOs and dangerous chemicals. Then, through the benefits received through Fairtrade, producers are encouraged to work on development priorities of their choice which lead to even greater sustainability.”

The Fair Trade USA seal.

As before, the standards specific to coffee do not have any additional environmental criteria (e.g., any sort of shade tree, density, species, or pruning requirements).

Here are the links to official statement by FLO and FTUSA. As the coffee industry responds, I’ll add links to especially relevant content.

Updated news links:

Additional links:

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Revised on February 27, 2015

Posted in Fair and Direct Trade

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