Fair Trade USA fights poverty by matching conscious consumers with responsible companies.
Increasingly, consumers are seeking out fair trade products. Almost 60% of US consumers are aware of the Fair Trade Certified label. Back in August when we spoke, Paul Rice told me, “I think it’s very empowering for people to realize that they can only vote for president once every four years, but they can vote for a better world with their shopping dollars, every single day.”
Paul knew from a young age that he wanted to work in the social justice movement. He studied agricultural development and sustainability. When he graduated from college, he went to Nicaragua for what he thought would be a one-year visit. He ended up staying for eleven years. While he was there, he worked in agricultural development projects, many of them aimed at lifting farmers out of poverty. Paul told me, “We were just not effective at helping farmers in the communities to develop their own capacity to solve their own problems.”
In 1990, Paul first heard about “fair traders” in Europe. That summer, Paul organized Nicaragua’s first fair trade co-op. In their first year, twenty farmers joined the co-op. They produced one shipping container of coffee for sale. The farmers sold their coffee to Equal Exchange in Boston, for $1.20 per pound. At the time, the local price for coffee was $0.10 per pound.
Over the next four years, Paul grew the co-op to 3,000 families. They exported over 100 containers of fair trade coffee on an annual basis. The farm families used the profits to engage in social, environmental and economic development. They dug wells, built schools and ran health programs. They trained women to be entrepreneurs. They started an organic certification program. Besides the obvious benefits to fair trade, there were less visual impacts as well, such as hope, pride and dignity. All of these benefits were thanks to the model of direct and equitable trade.
After four years, Paul realized that, while the fair trade movement was going well in Europe, it was still in a nascent state in the United States. “I just realized that fair trade was a model that needed to extend to the US,” he said.
He returned to the US, where he enrolled in an MBA program. “I knew how to organize farmers up in the hills,” Paul told me, “but I didn’t know how to organize the US business community.”
Today, Fair Trade USA is the leading independent certifier of fair trade products in the US. They work with farmers and workers in 80 countries across more than 30 product categories. These producers have earned more than $44 Million in premiums. Over 1,000 US Brands carry fair trade certified products.
Fair Trade USA has recently started certifying new product lines such as fish, clothing and household goods. While they have traditionally worked with producers across the global south, they have plans to begin certifying products produced in the United States.
Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Paul Rice
“I decided at the age of 17 that I wanted to dedicate my life to social justice.”
“So much of the international aid that goes out just creates dependency on aid.”
“I heard about these crazy people in Europe who called themselves fair traders.”
“We were getting farmers more than ten times more money than they would have.”
“They were learning how to be exporters and truckers and bankers.”
“The market it quite possibly the most powerful force for change that we could hope to have.”
“I pivoted from being an anti-capitalist to embracing social enterprise.”
“People, planet and profit – they can go together.”
“There was an elegant link between quality of life for the grower and quality of product.”
“Consumers are increasingly asking, where’s my food coming from?”
“The research indicates that anywhere between thirty and fifty percent of shoppers today are taking these values into account when they go to the store.”
“Corporate leaders are realizing that their long-term success, their long-term profitability and their long-term reputation as companies, are intimately connected to their supply chains.”
“Our work in the field, fundamentally, is auditing and certification.”
“We have a very rigorous standard, a 300-point checklist of social, labor and environmental criteria that all of our farmers have to meet.”
“We will start to certify farms here in the United States.”
“It is absolutely unconscionable that we would dedicate ourselves to fighting poverty and promoting sustainability around the world, but ignore the problem that is right here in our own back yard.”
“I believe the business community and the conscious consumer movement are probably the most powerful and scalable way to make a difference.”
“The question is not where you will be most effective. The question is, where will you be happiest? Where is your passion? Because this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
“It may sound crazy that you can change the world with a cup of coffee or a bar of chocolate, but it’s true.”
Social Entrepreneurship Resources:
Fair Trade USA: http://fairtradeusa.org