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The Organic Consumers Association’s Fair World Project is working to generate grassroots support in its opposition to newly revised certification standards for multi-ingredient products under consideration by Fair Trade USA.
Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps is prepared to file a new complaint with the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
On its website, third-party certifier Fair Trade USA lays out criteria for composite products – such as cosmetics and personal-care items, as well as multi-ingredient foods – under a draft policy that it says would “expand the market for fair-trade farmers and farm workers, impacting the long-term stability of their communities and the quality of their lives for generations to come.”
The campaign identifies two shortcomings in the draft policy in particular. First, products that contain as little as 20% fair-trade ingredients can qualify to feature Fair Trade USA’s Fair Trade Certified Ingredient seal without a front-label disclosure specifying the exact percentage of fair-trade content.
Whereas other fair-trade certifiers – such as the Institute for Marketecology, which oversees the Fair for Life program – require products to contain a minimum of 50% fair-trade content, Fair Trade USA’s “subpar” threshold is potentially misleading to consumers, who may assume that a product bearing the certifier’s logo is majority fair trade, according to FWP.
Should a new NAD complaint prove fruitless, “we will either litigate or we’ll even take it to a state ballot initiative. One way or another we’re going to get [fair-trade] percentage disclosures.” – Dr. Bronner’s President David Bronner
Second, Fair Trade USA is dispensing with a requirement in its previous policy – which itself was not popular with OCA, Dr. Bronner’s and other staunch fair-trade advocates – that obligated licensees of its seal to use fair-trade forms of any and all ingredients in their product wherever such options were commercially available.
Under the proposed change to the certifier’s policy, for example, a milk chocolate bar containing fair-trade cocoa but not fair-trade sugar – often the main ingredient in such products – could still sport a fair-trade label, FWP notes.
“This fair-trade hoax takes advantage of consumers’ intentions to buy fair-trade products, create unfair competition for the fully committed fair-trade brands who use a maximum of fair-trade ingredients in order to have a fair-trade seal, and most importantly harms the farmer and farmer co-ops that supply truly fair-trade brands with fair-trade ingredients,” the group says.
Dr. Bronner’s President David Bronner was similarly critical of the draft policy. “That’s the racket that Fair Trade USA’s running,” he said in a May 6 interview. “They say, ‘Here, we’ll give you our seal and make you look fair trade, but we’ll make it so you don’t actually have to use that much fair trade in your product – and you pay us the money.”
Both Dr. Bronner’s and FWP see the latest iteration as a step backward from an already soft certification scheme administered by Fair Trade USA and a concession to big business – in particular, The Hershey Company.
Hershey To Use FTUSA In Sustainability Initiative
Fair Trade USA claims its draft policy for multi-ingredient products will “increase fair-trade benefits to more farmers by enabling more companies to use Fair Trade Certified ingredients.”
As the fair-trade movement gains momentum and consumer awareness grows, companies are under increasing pressure to provide transparency around their ingredient supply programs and certify ingredients to third-party standards designed to ensure fair compensation and humane conditions for workers in developing markets.
One such firm is The Hershey Company. In October 2012, nonprofit Green America announced that Whole Foods Market was removing the chocolate maker’s high-end Scharffen Berger brand from its store shelves due to concerns about the possible use of forced child labor at the start of its supply chain in West Africa.
Green America – in collaboration with international human rights organization Global Exchange, advocacy group The International Labor Rights Forum and other stakeholders – organizes the Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign, which has united more than 150,000 consumers in a call for Hershey and other chocolate companies to improve labor practices on cocoa farms and plantations.
Hershey promptly answered Whole Foods’ action in fall 2012, and the negative media attention it generated, with a statement promising to source 100% third-party-certified cocoa for all of its chocolate products worldwide by 2020.
According to Raise the Bar, Hershey!, “fair-trade certification [is] the most rigorous certification for identifying and remediating the worst forms of child labor.”
Then in March, Hershey unveiled its 21st Century Cocoa Plan, “a roadmap for how the company will work to help cocoa communities around the world grow sustainable cocoa for the next century.” Breaking down its strategy by scalable benchmarks, the company said it aims to be purchasing at least 10% certified cocoa by the end of 2013, and 40% to 50% by the end of 2016.
Hershey named Fair Trade USA as one of three organizations it would partner with initially as it works to reach its certification goals.
Bronner told “The Rose Sheet” that following that announcement, “coincidentally – or not so coincidentally – Fair Trade USA issued a new labeling policy that not only doesn’t remedy the ongoing deception but actually is now going to be even worse.”
In its April 24 release, FWP observes: “It is clear [Fair Trade USA] will need to make these changes if they plan to work with large multinational corporations interested in limited fair-trade engagement.”
Dr. Bronner’s Readies New NAD Complaint
Dr. Bronner’s has taken its beef with Fair Trade USA to NAD before, arguing that the certifier’s Fair Trade Certified Ingredients seal amounts to deceptive advertising due to weaknesses in its policy for composite products.
In a June 2011 decision, NAD advised Fair Trade USA to require firms using its seal to clarify that their products do not necessarily contain all or even a majority of fair-trade ingredients (“Dr. Bronner’s Brings Avon, Fair Trade USA Before NAD For “Deceptive Practices”” – ”
The Rose Sheet,” Jun. 27, 2011).
Not satisfied, Dr. Bronner’s appealed that decision to NAD’s National Advertising Review Board, which ruled in September 2012 that Fair Trade USA should have licensees include the “relative percentage by weight of ingredients that are fair-trade-sourced” on labels for certified products.
Over the course of those cases and discussions with stakeholders, Fair Trade USA has implemented changes to its program, including increasing its minimum threshold requirement for fair-trade content to 20% versus the 2% and 5% minimums previously mandated for wash-off and leave-on products, respectively.
The certifier’s efforts have satisfied NAD but not Dr. Bronner’s, which urged NAD in an October 2012 letter to refer Fair Trade USA to federal regulators for enforcement action based on the enduring absence of a percentage disclosure requirement in the organization’s certification policy (“Dr. Bronner’s Urges NAD/NARB To Refer Fair Trade USA To Regulators” – ”
The Rose Sheet,” Oct. 29, 2012).
In a March 29 email to the organic soap maker, NAD Deputy Director David G. Mallen noted that the minimum fair-trade-content threshold at issue in Dr. Bronner’s original complaint is no longer in effect, as Fair Trade USA’s updated policy “significantly increases this threshold requirement.”
He also pointed out that advertising cited by Dr. Bronner’s originally as examples of fair-trade deception – including ads for Avon Products Inc.‘s Fair Trade Body Collection under its mark. brand, which Dr. Bronner’s claimed leveraged Fair Trade USA’s seal to mislead consumers – have since been discontinued.
In light of those developments and other modifications to Fair Trade USA’s program, “we have determined that no further action can be recommended at this time,” Mallen said.
Bronner interpreted: “NAD is saying at this point that because Fair Trade USA raised [the minimum content threshold] from 2% to 20%,” among other changes, “the problem got solved – but no, nothing got solved, that’s ridiculous. They’re just completely ignoring what NARB ruled.”
Rather than appeal, Dr. Bronner’s intends to file a new complaint with NAD by the end of May if it doesn’t see any movement from Fair Trade USA toward addressing outstanding concerns. This time, Bronner said, the firm plans to partner with a “major heavyweight” brand in fair-trade foods and will bring new data to the table from a consumer survey suggesting that consumers are being misled by Fair Trade USA’s seal for composite products.
In the survey, conducted by Lake Research Partners, 1003 Americans age 18 and over were asked to give their impressions of products bearing the Fair Trade Certified Ingredient seal.
Presented with a Fair Trade USA-certified chocolate bar (cocoa) and iced tea (tea), 72% and 83% of respondents assumed the products were entirely or majority fair trade, whereas in reality the products were only one-third and one-fifth fair trade, respectively, Dr. Bronner’s says.
Bronner is confident that the findings will be persuasive and lead to an NAD decision in Dr. Bronner’s favor, but should the NAD route fail, the firm will resort to other tactics.
“We will either litigate or we’ll even take it to a state ballot initiative” proposing that for “a fair-trade or any other eco-social seal that’s on the front of a label, if the product’s a minority of whatever that seal says it is, it has to have a percentage disclosure. One way or another we’re going to get percentage disclosures. Hopefully we don’t have to spend too much more energy, time and money to get there, but eventually we’re going to get there,” Bronner said.
The exec acknowledged that the problem Dr. Bronner’s sees with misleading fair-trade labeling and advertising is primarily in the food sector at this point. On the personal-care side, “companies have kind of gotten the message – don’t cross us,” he said.
Avon/mark. has discontinued its Fair Trade Body Collection – which launched in August 2010 as a line of products “not only good for the body, but also good for every body” – since its scrape with Dr. Bronner’s.
“People don’t want to run into us,” Bronner said.
As for FWP, the campaign will focus on influencing change in Fair Trade USA’s practices through grassroots action, “rais[ing] consumer and business awareness of [Fair Trade USA's] proposed changes in hopes that they will back down when it is clear how many consumers, producers, and businesses will be adversely affected and/or feel deceived by the changes.”