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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
This governance change was made in 2011 but only fully implemented in 2014 (Bennett 2015).
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.
Authors’ calculations, using the U.S. Consumer Price Index (CPI).
According to Renard (2015), this policy will be reviewed in 2015, with the potential for opening these crops to plantation production.
FTI is now revising its hired labor standards to move toward incorporating binding “living wage” language in future versions of the standards.
Small producers are defined as those possessing a maximum of 15 ha of land and not structurally dependent on hired labor (Fundeppo 2013b).
The analysis and tables cannot depict all dimensions of these standards, and leave out several issues on which differences between the seals are minimal.
These include IMO Control, Certimex, Mayacert, and Biolatina.
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.
Its parent, FTI, no longer applies this principle outside the U.S. and Canada.
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
Fair Trade USA
International Federation of Alternative Traders
International Labor Organization
Institute for Marketecology
Social Movement Organization
Small Producers’ Symbol (Símbolo de Pequeños Productores)
World Fair Trade Organization
Bacon, C. 2010. Who decides what is fair in fair trade? The agri-environmental governance of standards, access, and price. Journal of Peasant Studies 37(1): 111–147.
Bartley, T. 2007. How foundations shape social movements: The construction of an organizational field and the rise of forest certification. Social Problems 54(3): 229–255.
Bennett, E.A. 2015. Fairtrade International governance. In Handbook of research on fair trade, ed. L.T. Raynolds, and E.A. Bennett, 80–101. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.
Besky, S. 2008. Can a plantation be fair? Paradoxes and possibilities in fair trade Darjeeling tea certification. Anthropology of Work Review 29(1): 1–9.
Besky, S. 2010. Colonial pasts and fair trade futures: Changing modes of production and regulation on Darleejing tea plantations. In Fair trade and social justice: Global ethnographies, ed. S. Lyon, and M. Moberg, 97–112. New York: NYU Press.
Besky, S. 2014. The Darjeeling distinction: Labor and justice on fair-trade tea plantations in India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Bio Foundation. 2011a. Fair for Life social & fairtrade certification programme, version 2011: Control module 2: Criteria for hired labour operations. Wienfeld: IMO.
Bio Foundation. 2011b. Fair for Life social & fairtrade certification programme, version 2011: Control module 1: Labeling and control criteria. Wienfeld: IMO.
Bio Foundation. 2011c. Fair for Life social and fairtrade certification programme, version 2011: Control module 3: Criteria for producer groups. Wienfelden: IMO.
Bio Foundation. 2013. Fair for Life social and fairtrade certification programme, version December 2013. Wienfelden: IMO.
Busch, L. 2011. Standards: Recipes for reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Dickinson, R. 2011. An analysis of fair trade: reflections from a co-founder. Cleveland, OH: Presentation at InterReligious Task Force on Central America Conference.
Doherty, B., I.A. Davies, and S. Tranchell. 2013. Where now for fair trade? Business History 55(2): 161–189.
Equal Exchange. 2010. Why is Equal Exchange now using Institute for Marketecology (IMO) for most of our products? http://www.equalexchange.coop/why-is-equal-exchange-now-using-institute-for-marketecology-imo-for-most-of-our-products-. Accessed 15 Oct 2010.
Fair Trade USA. 2012. Certification manual: Fair Trade USA. Oakland, CA: FTUSA.
Fair Trade USA. 2013a. Fair Trade USA multiple ingredients product policy. Oakland, CA: FTUSA.
Fair Trade USA. 2013b. Fair Trade USA independent smallholders standard, version 1.1. Oakland, CA: FTUSA.
Fair Trade USA. 2013c. Fair Trade USA. 2013c. Fair Trade USA trade standard, version 1.0. Oakland, CA: FTUSA.
Fair Trade USA. 2014. Fair Trade USA farm workers standard, version 1.1. Oakland, CA: FTUSA.
Fair Trade USA. 2015. Fair Trade USA: Products and partners. http://fairtradeusa.org/products-partners. Accessed 15 Sept 2015.
Fair World Project. 2014a. Eco-social and fair trade certifier analysis. http://fairworldproject.org/overview/certifier-analysis/. Accessed 9 Feb 2014.
Fair World Project. 2014b. Tell Allegro Coffee: Play fair. http://salsa3.salsalabs.com/o/2002/p/dia/action/public/?action_key=8352. Accessed 24 July 2014.
Fairtrade America. 2013. Fairtrade America: About the Fairtrade mark. http://fairtradeamerica.org/fairtrade/about-fairtrade. Accessed 23 July 2014.
Fairtrade International. 2011. Fairtrade standard for small producer organizations (version 1.2). Bonn: Fairtrade International.
Fairtrade International. 2012. Monitoring the scope and benefits of fairtrade, 4th ed. Bonn: Fairtrade International.
Fairtrade International. 2013a. Q&A on Fairtrade International and Fair Trade USA. http://www.fairtrade.net/897.html. Accessed 24 April 2014.
Fairtrade International. 2013b. Monitoring the scope and benefits of fairtrade, 5th ed. Bonn: Fairtrade International.
Fairtrade International. 2014a. Fairtrade standard for hired labour (version 1.0). Bonn: Fairtrade International.
Fairtrade International. 2014b. Fairtrade sourcing partnerships for cocoa and sugar: An introduction. Bonn: Fairtrade International.
Fairtrade International. 2015. Fairtrade Trader Standard (version 1.0). Bonn: Fairtrade International.
French Fair Trade Platform, Fair World Project and FairNess. 2015. International guide to fair trade labels (edition 2015). Bondues: Plate-Forme Pour le Commerce Equitable.
Fridell, M., I. Hudson, and M. Hudson. 2008. With friends like these: The corporate response to fair trade. Review of Radical Political Economy 40(1): 8–34.
Fundeppo. 2010. Code of conduct: Small Producers’ Symbol (version 1, ed. 2). Mexico City: Fundeppo.
Fundeppo. 2012. Informative guide for small producer organizations. Mexico City: Fundeppo.
Fundeppo. 2013a. General standard of the Small Producers Symbol (version 7). Mexico City: Fundeppo.
Fundeppo. 2013b. Specific parameters: Standards for Small Producers’ Symbol (version 2, edit 2). Mexico City: Fundeppo.
Fundeppo. 2014a. List of certified small producers’ organizations. Mexico City: Fundeppo.
Fundeppo. 2014b. List of sustainable prices: General standard of Small Producers’ Symbol (version 4, edit 2). Mexico City: Fundeppo.
Fundeppo. 2014c. List of registered buyers. Mexico City: Fundeppo.
Gogoi, P. 2008. Is fair trade becoming ‘fair trade lite’? Business Week, June 18.
Hatanaka, M., J. Konefal, and D.H. Constance. 2012. A tripartite standards regime analysis of the contested development of a sustainable agriculture standard. Agriculture and Human Values 29(1): 65–78.
Howard, P.H., and P. Allen. 2010. Beyond organic and fair trade? An analysis of ecolabel preferences in the United States. Rural Sociology 75(2): 244–269.
Howard, P.H., and D. Jaffee. 2013. Tensions between firm size and sustainability goals: Fair trade coffee in the United States. Sustainability 5: 72–89.
IMO Fair for Life. (n.d.). Fair for Life: Become certified. http://www.fairforlife.org/pmws/indexDOM.php?client_id=fairforlife&page_id=become&lang_iso639=en. Accessed 25 April 2014.
International Labor Rights Forum. 2013. Theo Chocolate case study: Aiding and abetting: How unaccountable fair trade certifiers are destroying workers’ rights. Washington, DC: International Labor Rights Forum.
Jaffee, D. 2007. Brewing justice: Fair trade coffee, sustainability, and survival. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Jaffee, D. 2010. Fair trade standards, corporate participation, and social movement responses in the United States. Journal of Business Ethics 92: 267–285.
Jaffee, D. 2012. Weak coffee: Certification and co-optation in the fair trade movement. Social Problems 59(1): 94–116.
Jaffee, D., and P.H. Howard. 2010. Corporate cooptation of organic and fair trade standards. Agriculture and Human Values 27(4): 387–399.
Lake Research Partners. 2013. Fair trade labeling research: Findings from a nationwide survey of 1003 Americans aged 18 and over. Washington, DC: Lake Research Partners.
Lyon, S., and M. Moberg (eds.). 2010. Fair trade and social justice: Global ethnographies. New York: NYU Press.
Makita, R. 2012. Fair trade certification: The case of tea plantation workers in India. Development Policy Review 30(1): 87–107.
Miller, A.M.M and S.R. Bush. 2014. Authority without credibility? Competition and conflict between ecolabels in tuna fisheries. Journal of Cleaner Production. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2014.02.047.
Mutersbaugh, T. 2005a. Just-in-space: Certified rural products, labor of quality, and regulatory spaces. Journal of Rural Studies 21(4): 389–402.
Mutersbaugh, T. 2005b. Fighting standards with standards: Harmonization, rents, and social accountability in certified agrofood networks. Environment and Planning A 37(11): 2033–2051.
Neuman, W. 2011. A Question of Fairness. The New York Times, November 23.
Preza, M. 2012. President, Coordinadora Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Pequeños Productores del Comercio Justo (CLAC). Personal Communication, May 1, Minneapolis, MN.
Pruijn, G. 2014. Executive Director, SPP and Fundeppo. Personal Communication, February 27, Mexico City.
Raynolds, L.T. 2009. Mainstreaming fair trade coffee: From partnership to traceability. World Development 37(6): 1083–1093.
Raynolds, L.T. 2012. Fair trade: Social regulation in global food markets. Journal of Rural Studies 28: 276–287.
Raynolds, L.T. 2014. Fairtrade, certification, and labor: Global and local tensions in improving conditions for agricultural workers. Agriculture and Human Values 31(3): 499–511.
Raynolds, L.T., D. Murray, and A. Heller. 2007a. Regulating sustainability in the coffee sector: A comparative analysis of third-party environmental and social certification initiatives. Agriculture and Human Values 24: 147–163.
Raynolds, L.T., D. Murray, and J. Wilkinson (eds.). 2007b. Fair trade: The challenges of transforming globalization. New York: Routledge.
Reed, D. 2009. What do corporations have to do with fair trade? Positive and normative analysis from a value chain perspective. Journal of Business Ethics 86: 3–26.
Renard, M.C. 2003. Fair trade: Quality, market and conventions. Journal of Rural Studies 19(1): 87–96.
Renard, M.C. 2005. Quality certification, regulation and power in fair trade. Journal of Rural Studies 21(4): 419–431.
Renard, M.C. 2010. In the name of conservation: CAFE Practices and fair trade in Mexico. Journal of Business Ethics 92: 287–299.
Renard, M.C. 2015. Fair trade for small farmer cooperatives in Latin America. In Handbook of research on fair trade, ed. L.T. Raynolds, and E.A. Bennett, 475–490. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.
Renard, M.C., and A. Loconto. 2013. Competing logics in the further standardization of fair trade: ISEAL and the Símbolo de Pequeños Productores. International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food 20(1): 51–68.
Rice, P. 2012. Fair Trade USA: Why we parted ways with Fair Trade International. http://www.triplepundit.com/2012/01/fair-trade-all-fair-trade-usa-plans-double-impact-2015/. Accessed 11 Jan 2014.
Schaltegger, S., and M. Wagner. 2011. Sustainable entrepreneurship and sustainability innovation: Categories and interactions. Business Strategy and the Environment 20(4): 222–237.
Sherman, S. 2012. The brawl over fair trade coffee. The Nation 295: 22–26.
Smith, A. 2013. What does it mean to do fair trade? Ontology, praxis, and the ‘Fair for Life’ certification system. Social Enterprise Journal 9(1): 53–72.
Smith, T.M., and M. Fischlein. 2010. Rival private governance networks: Competing to define the rules of sustainability performance. Global Environmental Change 20: 511–522.
Stevis, D. 2015. Global labor politics and fair trade. In Handbook of research on fair trade, ed. L.T. Raynolds, and E.A. Bennett, 102–119. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.
World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO). 2013. 10 principles of fair trade. http://wfto.com/fair-trade/10-principles-fair-trade. Accessed 20 April 2015.
Zinn, R. 2012. FWP’s statement on Fair Trade USA’s resignation from Fairtrade International (FLO). For A Better World 4: 10–11.
About this article
Cite this article
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). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-015-9663-2
- Fair trade