Gearing up for Halloween this year, I wanted to pause and reflect about what “fair trade” really is and why we should care. Looking briefly to the past, the concept of fair trade was introduced during the 1700’s in response the sugarcane industry in areas of West Africa, South & Central America, and the Caribbean. Europeans implemented their imperialistic agenda by building colonies and enforcing oppressive economies. The 17th and 18th centuries rung in a world that was shifting toward large scale and cheap production, with human rights tossed to the side. High production rate was often linked to slave labor and the original fair trade movement was set in motion as an anti-slavery campaign. Pamphlets and posters educated consumers about the significance of buying slave-free products, which to the shock of the conventional market, resulted in a large drop of sales (Blundell). The idea of consumer power was then a novel idea. The rise of this new concept of trade, in which a purchaser could be held accountable and responsible for what they were buying, would forever change how we look at the modern marketplace.
As a Fair Trade Intern at the PJC and someone who is proud to claim Halloween as her favorite holiday, I find myself in a spooky situation regarding my chocolate consumption. Here in the United States, over 90 million pounds of chocolate are purchased in the weeks leading up to October 31st – more than any other holiday (Nielsen). An avid chocolate lover myself, I admit that in the past I blindly contributed to the conventional cocoa industry. However, first hand exposure to cocoa farms in Costa Rica and Peru and time spent at the PJC have opened my eyes to how a product that brings joy and pleasure to some is an atrocity to others.
So what does the fair trade movement look like today? There are three systems in play: direct trade, organizational membership, and fair trade certification. Direct trade is achieved through working directly and personally with a company, farm, or individual. Membership organizations require all members to go through a verification process in order to gain the organization’s certification. Different fair trade membership organizations have minor discrepancies in their values.
Certifications are the entity most of us are familiar with (think, tiny logos on the corner of your chocolate bars). Although there are many different fair trade certifications (Fair Trade USA, Fair for Life, Fair Trade International) each one follows general guidelines that overall have had a great impact on safe working conditions, fair compensation, and conscientious environmental practices. To ensure that a company is keeping up with the fair trade standards, an independent third party is brought in to audit them.
Although there has been much progress in regards to fair trade, the growing marketplace has lead to weaker standards and discrepancies in the fair trade model. Contentions have arisen regarding various policy and labeling agreements. One rising concern is over the certification of products grown on plantation size farms. The fair trade movement as we know it started off specifically to support small scale farmers and producers. So while the fair trade certification and logos have made it easier for us as consumers to identify where fair trade principles have been taken into account, our job as consumers has not, and should not, be completely done for us.
In relation to the cocoa industry, buying fair trade is critical. 70% of the chocolate consumed in the US comes from West Africa, specifically the Ivory Coast and Ghana. Some of these farms have horrific working conditions and even utilize child slave labor. In an area with limited economic opportunities, children are often guided with false promises of economic opportunity. When talking of child labor, it is necessary to take into account our personal and western perspective. Our own cultural definitions are not universal. Supporting a system where differing norms remain visible and valuable to our diverse world is essential even when addressing topics like child slave labor. So, while we don’t stand against young people working per se, we do stand in opposition to what is known in the industry as Worst Forms of Child Labor which have been documented repeatedly and are not refuted, denied, or avoided by the practices of companies such as Hershey’s, Nestlé, Ghiradelli, and the like.
So, in gearing up for Halloween this year, I encourage us to think before we purchase and to not only reach for the fair trade logos, but the books that will help us learn more. (The No-Nonsense Guide to Fair Trade by Sally Blundell, is a great start and very short.) Labels and regulations are always changing and it’s our job as consumers to use our purchasing power to show where our values lie. Divine Chocolate is a great example of a chocolate company supporting farmers and elevating the fair trade movement. Visit www.divinechocolate.com for more information or visit us for a taste!
In addition, the PJC and I personally extend the invite to not only you, but your kids, for our cocoa campaign event Saturday, October 28th from 12-1 p.m. This presentation is intended for kids seven years old and up. It is designed to educate, brainstorm solutions, and create tangible action steps in fighting the oppressive cocoa industry.
Chocolate on Halloween is inevitable. Buying fair trade isn’t. Buy smart this 31st!
By Alex Rose, Fair Trade Intern