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The Role of Fair Trade and Fair Labor Labels in the Movement for Food Justice

The original goal of the movement for organic farming was care for the soil and the watersheds, for healthy, nourishing foods, and for the many hands that tend the crops. Yet, as organic standards have developed, much of the emphasis has been on growing methods and too often, the farmers and workers who do the work have been left behind. A variety of voluntary ethical and labor justice certifications and programs have been created that can fill that gap. Although their standards, tools and theory of change vary, they share a common goal: safeguarding the people who grow the food.

A Broken Food System
Any examination of ethical and labor justice certifications would be incomplete if it failed to address the massive imbalances of power that exist within the food system. As a reader of The Natural Farmer, we don’t need to tell you that our food system is broken. Here in the U.S., and around the globe, corporate-driven, industrial agriculture is polluting our planet and exploiting people.

Farming has never been a lucrative vocation. Yet increasing corporate consolidation squeezes farmers as fewer and fewer companies control every aspect of our food system. According to the Farm Bureau, “farmers and ranchers in the U.S. receive only 15 cents out of every dollar spent on food. The rest goes for costs beyond the farm gate: wages and materials for production, processing, transportation, distribution, and marketing.” That’s less than half what it was in 1980.

Massive mergers between some of the biggest companies mean that seeds, inputs, processing, and trading are all controlled by just a few companies. That consolidation continues at just about every step of the supply chain. Just ten companies own the majority of brands on supermarket shelves, whether conventional or organic. Those supermarket shelves are themselves owned by fewer and fewer companies, as Walmart, Target, and now Amazon-owned Whole Foods take more and more of the money spent on food.

Of course, imbalances of power are not a new element of our food system. In the U.S. and around the globe, there is a long, long history of land theft and displacement of indigenous people for farm land. Plantation owners around the globe have exploited workers and artificially reduced production costs. The legacy of slavery in the U.S. farming system exists even today. Farmworkers in most states are exempt from many of the basic protections of labor law, exempted from minimum wage and overtime laws and excluded from the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)’s guarantees of freedom to organize and join a union—all the results of New Deal Era compromises (for a more comprehensive history, see https://thenaturalfarmer.org/article/brief-history-farmworker-wages-us-current-requirements/).

Thus, it’s little wonder that so many of those who grow our food struggle to put food on the table for themselves.

The Role of Voluntary Certification
The inequities and challenges in our food system are huge, systemic, and long-standing. It would be naïve to suggest that a certification label could change these things alone. Yet some of the best programs out there do provide frameworks that can both improve conditions and guide buyers towards products that are in line with their values. Fair World Project’s analysis reviews the standards behind the labels through this lens.

Assessments and recommendations below are based on two reports, Justice in the Fields: A Report on the Role of Farmworker Justice Certification and an Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Seven Labels (2016) and Fairness for Farmers: A Report Assessing the Fair Trade Movement and the Role of Certification (2018). Justice in the Fields reviews labels in the U.S. market that intend to benefit farmworkers (and, in some cases, farmers) both in the U.S. and globally. Fairness for Farmers evaluates the labels in the U.S. market that intend to benefit small-scale farmers in the Global South, although a few may also allow participation from U.S. farmers who meet certain criteria.

Standards that benefit farmworkers are different than those that intend to benefit farmers, however it is important to note that many certifications put the same label on all certified products. Fair World Project believes it is important to make a distinction between these standards because the intentions are vastly different. However, the confusion in the marketplace is becoming more and more relevant as Fair Trade USA, one of the most prevalent ethical labels in the U.S. marketplace continues to broaden the scope of products that may bear their label and there is nothing to denote whether a product came from a small-scale farmer in the Global South or a massive indoor farm in the Global North.

Further, while “fair trade” emerged as a term to describe a movement for solidarity-based ethical trade between parties in the Global North and South based on values of transparency, democracy, empowerment, that definition has shifted in the marketplace. Instead of aiming to shift the balance of power between trading partners, too often, the term has been reduced to designating Corporate Social Responsibility programs. While fair trade originated as a movement focused on North-South trading relationships, some have broadened the definition to include North-North trading relationships.

An Overview of Certifications
Ethical labels give buyers a chance to choose products that are in line with their values. Just as those values are diverse, so too are the certifications and labels available. Below we include a short description of the various certifications in the marketplace.

Fair Food Program (FFP) is the label of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Developed by and for tomato workers in Florida, their standards focus on working conditions and using binding legal contracts to hold corporate buyers accountable for their supply chains. Their model has been adopted by the Milk with Dignity program in Vermont, and inspired other initiatives around the globe.

Fair for Life (FFL) is a fair trade certification program developed by the Swiss BioFoundation and the Institute for Marketecology (IMO). FFL criteria focus on fair trading relationships, working conditions, and environmental responsibility.

Fair Trade Certified is the label of Fair Trade USA (FTUSA). Initially developed as a fair trade label for North-South trading, this label now appears on products grown, manufactured or fished around the globe, including in the U.S. and Canada. Standards focus on social criteria, working conditions, and some environmental components.

Fairtrade is the label of the Fairtrade International (FI). Developed as a fair trade label for North-South trading, this label continues to focus on producers in the Global South. While not a certification option for U.S. farmers, this is the most common fair trade label globally.

Food Justice Certified is the label of the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP). Founded by farmworker and farmer organizations, this U.S.-based program establishes criteria for both farmers’ relationships to farmworkers and buyers’ relationships to farmers.

The Guarantee System launched by the World Fair Trade Organization is not a product certification as the others listed here. Instead, through a combination of self-assessment tools, peer visits, and auditing, their monitoring mechanisms focus on the overall fair trade practices of the organization. While the focus is economically-marginalized producers and workers in the Global South, northern producers may also be considered in some circumstances.

Naturland Fair is the fair trade label of farmer-owned organic certifier Naturland. Developed as a fair trade option for its certified organic entities, this Germany-based program establishes criteria for both farmers’ relationships to farmworkers and buyers’ relationships to farmers. Naturland organic standards are higher than EU organic standards and include additional criteria, including standards for water management and animal welfare.

Responsibly Grown, Farmworker Assured is the label of the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) — a
collaboration of stakeholders including labor unions, NGOs, and corporate buyers, their standards focusing on labor practices, food safety, and pest management criteria.

For more details, see https://fairworldproject.org/get-informed/movements/fair-trade/certifiers-membership-orgs/.

Fair Labor & Fair Trade Certifications Compared
While standards for each label vary in their details, the table below is intended to give an overview of whether the program emphasizes or addresses the issue, not the quality of standards on the topic. The definition of “small-scale” varies widely, both geographically and by crop. Likewise, the details of how a fair price might be determined vary whether you’re considering vegetables or a crop like coffee that is traded on global commodity markets. In every case, the best programs take those distinctions into consideration and prioritize opportunities for those involved to negotiate based on their needs.

The Path to a More Fair Food System
For too long, our food system has been driven by a race to the bottom, putting profits ahead of people and the planet. Several of the programs noted above propose innovative solutions to halt that race.

CIW’s Fair Food Program clearly identifies the power imbalance in the food system and tackles it head on. They have brought massive buyers like Taco Bell and Walmart to the table to sign legally-binding agreements with worker groups. Workers’ rights are enshrined in the purchasing contracts; farms that fail to prevent exploitation face the very real consequence of losing the ability to sell to brands that have signed with the program. Further, a per-pound premium supports farmers and workers alike. Through a combination of strong auditing and worker-based training and reporting, they have stamped out the worst abuses and exploitation on participating farms—and the world is taking notice. The Milk with Dignity program follows a similar model with Ben & Jerry’s suppliers in Vermont and the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety is building on these lessons to protect the rights of garment workers in some of the most dangerous factories in the world.

Agricultural Justice Project’s Food Justice Certified program was founded by farmworkers and farmer associations (including NOFA), and its strong standards address some of the key issues that these advocates strive for in a fair food system. Their standards require the elimination of piecework and discourage the use of labor contractors, two elements that can make enforcing workers’ rights difficult. Unlike most programs, Food Justice Certified requires organic certification as a complement to its label. They also recognize that building a fair supply chain requires participation of all players and their standards address farmers, workers, and retailers’ roles.

The World Fair Trade Organization’s Guarantee System takes a different approach than all the other labels. Instead of focusing on product certification and tracing a single supply chain, their process evaluates the enterprise as a whole—only organizations that meet their high standards for membership are eligible to put the label on products. The label is most commonly seen on artisan-made handicrafts instead of foods, at least in the U.S., however the organization has recently broadened their definitions of marginalized producers to include some farmers in the Global North.

These are just a few of the innovative models that exist. To learn more, including full length reports and in-depth point by point comparisons, see https://fairworldproject.org/choose-fair/certifier-analysis/

Fair Trade GridAnother label will soon be seen on packaging in the U.S. with the upcoming launch of the new Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) Label. The ROC is a product certification that builds on organic certification as a baseline with the holistic goal of encompassing pasture-based animal welfare, fairness for farmers and workers, and robust requirements for soil health and land management. The ROC works with existing fair labor and fair trade certifications to address the social components of the standards.
The ROC is a product certification that builds on The Role of Fair Trade and Fair Labor
Labels in the Movement for Food Justice
Bring a roomful of food advocates together to ask the question how best to fix our broken food system and you’ll likely get a multiplicity of answers. Like-wise, there are multiple certifications seeking to assure buyers that the people who grow their food were treated fairly.

At its best, a certification label represents clear, high-bar standards crafted with the input of the farmers and workers they intend to benefit. A label can be a short-hand for a broad movement whose organizing for change goes beyond a single transaction to build solidarity between buyers, farmers, workers. Globally, fair trade organizations like the World Fair Trade Organization and Fairtrade International have been part of these movements. And here in the U.S., the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is mobilizing for change both in the fields and in the streets. Strong standards can provide a roadmap to those who want to do the right thing, and certifying organizations can provide connections between like-minded producers.

Unfortunately, a label can also support the greenwashing efforts of multinational corporations. Fair Trade USA’s Fair Trade Certified label is one of the most prevalent in the U.S. Yet their standards come closer to Corporate Social Responsibility in many regards (Fair World Project’s in-depth discussion of the topic can be found here: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/approach-with-caution-an-assessment-of-fair-trade_us_59091e03e4b084f59b49fddd). Even more troubling, they recently certified a melon plantation in the midst of a long-standing, unresolved labor dispute. Not only does this fail to protect workers and fail to make change in our food system, it contributes to cynicism and suspicion of anyone making ethical claims.

Not all labels are created equal. Whether shopping in the store, or making decisions for your own business, it pays to do the research. Part of Fair World Project’s mission is to do that research, evaluating standards with the long-term goal in mind: how does this contribute to building a better food and farming system for all people?
Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.