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Who’s the fairest of them all? The fractured landscape of U.S. fair trade certification


In recent years, consumers in the United States have been confronted by no fewer than four competing fair-trade labels, each grounded in a separate certification system and widely differing standards. This fracturing is partly a response to the recent split by the U.S. certifier Fair Trade USA from the international fair trade system, but also illustrates longstanding divisions within the fair trade movement. This article explores the dynamics of competition among nonstate standards through content analyses of fair trade standards documents from the four U.S. fair-trade certifications for agrifood products (Fair Trade USA, Fairtrade America, Fair for Life, and the Small Producer Symbol). It analyzes the differences among them, asking what kinds of social and labor relations are facilitated by each, and identifies how closely they correspond with key fair trade principles. We make two primary arguments. First, we contend that the case of fair trade challenges the dominant conceptual model used to analyze competition among multiple private standards in a single arena, in which newer challengers lower the rigor of standards. Second, we argue that the current fractured U.S. certification landscape illuminates divisions among different interest groups over which principles—and which labor and production forms—should be privileged under the banner of fair trade.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    This governance change was made in 2011 but only fully implemented in 2014 (Bennett 2015).

  2. 2.

    The 2011 FTI increase brought the base price to $1.40 per pound, plus a 20 cent fair trade premium, with a 30 cent organic premium—totaling $1.90 per pound for organic fair trade coffee.

  3. 3.

    Authors’ calculations, using the U.S. Consumer Price Index (CPI).

  4. 4.

    According to Renard (2015), this policy will be reviewed in 2015, with the potential for opening these crops to plantation production.

  5. 5.

    FTI is now revising its hired labor standards to move toward incorporating binding “living wage” language in future versions of the standards.

  6. 6.

    Small producers are defined as those possessing a maximum of 15 ha of land and not structurally dependent on hired labor (Fundeppo 2013b).

  7. 7.

    The analysis and tables cannot depict all dimensions of these standards, and leave out several issues on which differences between the seals are minimal.

  8. 8.

    These include IMO Control, Certimex, Mayacert, and Biolatina.

  9. 9.

    FTUSA says it is adopting FTI’s standards for organized smallholders “as-is” for the present, leaving its adherence to the prefinancing mandate subject to interpretation.

  10. 10.

    Its parent, FTI, no longer applies this principle outside the U.S. and Canada.

  11. 11.

    A few brands (including Starbucks) are choosing to maintain more than one of these certifications, while others have forgone certification entirely.



Latin American and Caribbean Coordinator of Fair Trade Producers (Coordinadora LatinoAmericana y del Caribe de Pequeños Productores de Comercio Justo)


Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International


Fairtrade International


Fair Trade USA


International Federation of Alternative Traders


International Labor Organization


Institute for Marketecology


Nongovernmental Organization


Social Movement Organization


Small Producers’ Symbol (Símbolo de Pequeños Productores)


Transnational Corporation


World Fair Trade Organization


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Jaffee, D., Howard, P.H. Who’s the fairest of them all? The fractured landscape of U.S. fair trade certification. Agric Hum Values 33, 813–826 (2016).

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  • Fair trade
  • Standards
  • Certification
  • Agribusiness
  • Plantations
  • Smallholders
  • Corporations