How to spot a Fair Trade fake

How to spot a Fair Trade fake

Fair Trade products are catching on in popularity as more and more consumers put their money where their conscience is. But as the dollars flow, so comes the controversy of companies pretending to be fair trade when they're not. What's a consumer to do?
Sarah Griffis loves buying fair trade products. She knows make a difference in the lives of those who create them.

"It's a great cause to support," Griffis said.

So she shops for fair trade products when she can.

"Fair trade is a different way of doing business, in which buyers and sellers work directly with farmers and crafts people in developing countries to make sure that they have a sustainable way of earning a living," Renee Bowers of the Fair Trade Federation said.

More fair trade certified products than ever are now sold in the US, from 6,000 in 2009 to 9,500 in 2010, and company requests for the labels are skyrocketing. Only problem - the growing popularity of fair trade products is also attractive to those with less honest intent.

"What's going right now on in the fair trade industry is what we're calling Fair Washing,” Megy Karydes of said.

“It's a play off of the term Greenwashing, where some companies are claiming to be fair trade and may not necessarily be fair trade so the onus falls on the consumer to ask the right questions, find out why is it fair trade, what makes it fair trade?"

There are logos and certifications companies can apply for from groups like the Fair Trade Federation or Fair Trade USA - but critics say more and more companies are exploiting those labels and making false claims.

In fact, the National Advertising Division of the better business council recently notified one major company to stop using photos that overstate the fair trade benefits of buying a product made with minimal fair trade ingredients. However -

"There really are no penalties because there is no legal governing body for fair trade so to speak," Bowers said.

In some cases, a company may have one fair trade product among dozens of others, but promote the entire brand as being fair trade. Or, they may use a token amount of fair trade ingredients in the product.

"Having 2% raw materials in your bath and body product does not make you a fair trade product, but using that label on your packaging may give consumers the false impression that their products are fair trade," Karydes said.

This leaves buyers like Griffis upset that companies could take advantage of her good intentions.

"I would feel definitely cheated if I found out something I bought that I believed was fair trade was not," Griffis said.

So, the Fair Trade Federation suggests that consumers who care about finding fair trade products look for labels and certifications, but in addition to that - dig deeper.

"One of the questions that you need to ask if you see a fair trade label is, for instance, which ingredients are fair trade,” Bowers said. “If you're looking at a food product, are all the ingredients produced in a fair trade manner or just some of the ingredients?"

"Seek out those products that have those labels but ask more questions,” Karydes said. “It's not as easy as taking it at face value."

Some of the biggest product categories for fair trade include coffee, flowers and produce.
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