In Tune with Food Trends

Growth of Fair Trade Certification shows more people care about where their food comes from

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Strong trends in the U.S. food industry show that people care more and more about their food. They care about its effects on their health and on the planet and the people who grew it.

Witness the expansion of organics in the health food segment, contributing to strong growth in co-ops and the meteoric rise of Whole Foods Market. Witness the extensive media coverage of how small-scale agriculture and family farms are coming back to life due to consumer support and demand for better, locally grown food—a recent article on the front page of USA Today (5/12/04) told the story of how farmers and consumers both benefit from a direct relationship.

Buying from local, artisanal producers at farmers’ markets and in specialty stores is now very popular in sophisticated urban centers and small towns all around the country. Issues such as sustainable seafood, hormone-free dairy and meats, trans-fats, child obesity, and genetically engineered foods are hot topics in the media, and the food industry is responding to the need for better food.

It’s one small step from awareness about how your food impacts your personal health and well-being to thinking about what life is like for the person who produced your food.

With commodities like coffee, tea, and cocoa that are grown only in developing countries, consumers increasingly trust certification labels to provide an independent third-party guarantee of the integrity of the supply chain of the product. In addition, they think carefully about the companies to which they give their business, and they are aware of their purchasing power.

The Fair Trade Certification label is increasingly recognized as a guarantee that farmers got a fair price. While many consumers are still uncertain about exactly how the system works—even reputable media outlets often confuse the term “Fair Trade” with “Free Trade”—the rapid consumer acceptance of the label indicates that most consumers think the label is positive, signifying a congruence of personal values and purchasing habits.

New alliances

Companies are also working within their respective industries to set an example for responsible purchasing. Bon Appétit Management Company, whose “Farm to Fork” program mandates chefs to purchase from producers located within 150 miles of where the food is to be served, extends their philosophy of buying locally and buying quality to offer Fair Trade Certified coffee in many of their 190 accounts across the U.S. Given that Bon Appétit cafes serve up 55 million meals each year, this type of purchasing power has a real impact on farmers’ livelihoods and consumer awareness. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, whose Fair Trade Certified coffee offerings increase yearly, has based a major part of their growth strategy around their Fair Trade Certified products.

Companies sign up for Fair Trade for several reasons: to grow their businesses by reaching a new customer base, to secure a supply for specialty products, and to retain employee loyalty with their commitment to buying authentic products from traceable, socially responsible sources.

Well-known companies such as Ben & Jerry’s, who started using Fair Trade Certified coffee in their ice creams in April of 2005, are an obvious fit for Fair Trade. Dunkin’ Donuts raised eyebrows among the Corporate Social Responsibility) cognoscenti in 2003 when they launched their line of specialty drinks with 100-percent Fair Trade Certified coffee. Dunkin’ has yet to promote the product in their consumer advertising, however, illustrating some of the challenges in bringing Fair Trade into mainstream, cost-conscious market segments. Procter & Gamble, with its Millstone line of specialty coffees, introduced Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee on a trial basis online; one year later, P&G rolled out the coffees in retail.

Growth trends: 2004 a banner year

Due in part to green coffee prices being at their lowest point in history, U.S. businesses flocked during the past year to sign up as TransFair USA licensees.

TransFair is the certifying agency for Fair Trade in the U.S., boasting more than 400 licensees and growing rapidly. Fair Trade coffee imports grew 76 percent over 2003, with 33 million pounds of green coffee certified in 2004. Mirroring the significant trend in organics, 68 percent of the coffee certified for the U.S. market was also organic.

Tea grew by 82 percent in 2004, with 164,000 pounds certified. The boom in bottled teas and specialty teas, as well as the marketing emphasis on the mystique of tea origins, have made tea a natural fit for Fair Trade. Tea-producing countries with Fair Trade Certified plantations are India, Sri Lanka, and China.

Consumer awareness of child slave labor issues in cocoa production also drove demand for products that were guaranteed free of child labor, with 2004 sales growing an impressive 214 percent, representing 562,634,000 pounds. Fast-growing chocolatier Dagoba made inroads into gourmet markets with their organic line of chocolates, many of which are Fair Trade Certified.

Fair Trade fresh fruit, an entirely new industry segment, was launched in January of 2004, bringing tropical fruits—bananas, pineapples, mangoes and grapes—to American retailers’ shelves. The U.S. has welcomed

Fair Trade Certified fruit, purchasing almost 9 million pounds in the first year of imports. Fair Trade Certified sugar was brought to market in April 2005, and rice is expected to become available before the end of the year.

An additional important trend is long-time coffee companies expanding their lines beyond coffee: Fair Trade pioneer Equal Exchange added baking chocolate, hot chocolate, chocolate bars, and tea in 2004, reaching their core base of natural food stores and the faith community.

How Fair Trade is changing

Fair Trade’s support base has become highly diverse. Once the sole purview of small, idealistic roasters and importers, now companies both large and small see the benefits for their business; long-term TransFair clients are growing in volume and promoting their involvement, and new clients join every day.

Consumer trends to note are the convergence of core supporters such as faith groups and students, known for die-hard social justice activism, with mainstream consumers who like doing the right thing—as long as it’s easy—and specialty food consumers who go to great lengths to seek out artisan foods. What other model brings together such wildly different constituencies?

In 2004, mainstream companies widened their offerings with new accounts, making Fair Trade more accessible to mainstream consumers who purchase from supermarkets. And noted chefs from top restaurants all over the country spoke up in support of Fair Trade products, appreciating the superlative product quality and the chance to purchase as directly as possible products that are grown only in developing countries.

*** Haven Bourque, formerly with TranFair USA, is vice president at Straus Communications, promoting organics and Fair Trade (www.strauscom.com).

See other articles from this issue: #119 July - August - 2005