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What exactly do those fair trade certified labels mean?

fair trade productsWhen you’re out grocery shopping and see a product with a logo that says “Fair Trade Certified,” what does it mean?  It depends on the logo and, because there are quite a few of them, it can get confusing.

So here’s a brief look at the major labels and what they signify:


Fair Trade USA, a non-profit organization, uses the label on the left. Fair Trade USA is the leading independent certification agency for fair trade agricultural goods in the U.S.

The label means the product has gone through a rigorous inspection and monitoring process from farm to market to assure adherence to well-established fair trade standards. This particular mark is for single-ingredient products, such as coffee, bananas, and honey.


fair trade certified ingredients

These logos are also used by Fair Trade USA. They apply to products such as ice cream, cookies, and beverages which contain multiple ingredients.  They signify that at least 20% of the product’s ingredients have been fair trade certified by Fair Trade USA.

All the fair trade certified ingredients must be identified in the ingredients panel.  The package must also indicate the total percentage of fair trade ingredients, e.g., “43% Fair Trade Certified™ Ingredients.”

Now here’s where it can get a bit confusing.  For any individual fair trade certified ingredient in a product, 100% of that ingredient must be fair trade certified.

For example, you buy a box of cookies bearing the fair trade certified ingredients label, meaning at least 20% of the ingredients are fair trade certified.  You turn the box over and see that cocoa is one of the certified ingredients. The ingredient list includes cocoa powder and chocolate icing. To qualify for the fair trade ingredients label, both the cocoa in the powder and the cocoa in the icing must be fair trade certified.

fairtrade mark

This is the mark of Fairtrade International, an organization that coordinates fair trade labeling at an international level.  Its use is similar to the Fair Trade USA label for both single and multiple ingredient products, requiring at least 20% fair trade certified ingredients for the latter.

For products like cookies, ice cream and chocolate bars, all ingredients that can be sourced as fair trade must be fair trade. This is the ‘all that can be’ principle. So if a chocolate bar contains cocoa powder, nuts, and milk, the cocoa powder and nuts must be sourced from a fair trade certified producer.  But not the milk, because milk is not currently a fair trade certified product.

Are fair trade certified products also organic?  Not necessarily.  But both certifying organizations require sustainable farming techniques.  Both also offer a premium price for organic products.  According to Fair Trade USA, almost half of all fair trade certified products imported to the U.S. are organic.

And what about the use of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in fair trade certified products?  Both certifying groups ban their use.

Finally, be aware that some companies claim to be fair trade without having gone through the independent scrutiny of one of these certifying organizations. Purchasing products with these labels is your assurance that they meet the social, environmental, and economic standards of these two major certifying groups.

Sources: Fair Trade USA, Fairtrade International



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