While Fairtrade International has an extensive global network, its presence in the U.S. was fairly limited until Fairtrade America was established in 2012. Since then the organization has made strides in getting socially-responsible bananas on the consumer radar, and according to development manager for produce Derek Mulhern there have been some big wins recently.
With the majority of U.S. consumers indicating they are willing to spend 10 cents more per pound of bananas if they fruit is certified Fairtrade, the category is well-placed right now and that can only be to the benefit of communities in growing areas.
Speaking with Fresh Fruit Portal during the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Fresh Summit convention in New Orleans last month, Mulhern said bananas remained a loss leader in the U.S. retail space, but there were interesting developments at play.
“I think Fairtrade is in an an optimal time and position to be a value-add as people re-look at how they’re pricing their bananas and where they fall within the retail store,” he said.
“Two of our big wins have been really working with Coliman sourcing their bananas out of Mexico – those are organic and primarily selling on the West Coast – and with Equal Exchange and Oké on the East Coast; they’ve had such great growth in their banana and avocado industry.
“There are always challenges in the market ensuring we can get a year-round supply of avocados – they’re sourcing a lot from Mexico and there are things like that that are exciting.”
He also pointed to Colombian banana group Uniban as a new partner looking to ship more to the United States.
“They have a great supply now into Europe, and they’re really excited to see how they can grow the market here in the United States – we’re working with them to help them get out there.
The impact in Colombia
Alex Antonio Mesa Cuesta, a fruit quality supervisor at Bananeras de Uraba S.A. – a member of Uniban – emphasized the importance of fairtrade premiums for his life and the lives of people in his community.
Fairtrade premium provide additional funds on top of the purchase price for the raw product that goes directly to the producer organization to invest in their communities, businesses or improving the local environment according community priorities.
“When you buy a Fairtrade product you not only satisfy your need but certainly you are helping the community where it’s produced so that there’s no child labor, so that workers can have their own homes, workers can have easier access to education, and they can ascend in life,” Mesa Cuesta said.
Mesa Cuesta said his association had been Fairtrade certified for more than 10 years, helping not only improve lives but also developing culture and helping the community as a result.
“We were the pioneering group of Fairtrade certification in Urabá, a region in Antioquia,” he said.
“It has been very marginalized and stigmatized by issues of violence, and Fairtrade has been a great opportunity to give quality of life to workers in the region.”
“Education is free – a worker, their wife, their kids can study for free in the university they want. It’s completely paid – they can get specializations like a masters degree. Currently we haven’t had doctorates but that’s how far it could go.”
Jose Jaramillo of Plantaciones Churido, another group affiliated with Uniban, emphasized how Fairtrade premiums had been used to pay for schools, centers for the arts, football fields and other investments of great public benefit.
“I’m in a community where between 150,000-200,000 inhabitants have seen an appreciable impact,” he said.
“We haven’t just given premiums to the farm in the region but also have made investments in neighboring community around us, so that it’s not just about economic cycles but all people benefit from the Fairtrade seal.”
Fairtrade blueberry development
Mulhern adds another breakthrough has been the inclusion of blueberry brand Naturipe in the program, specifically through the inclusion of Chilean-grown fairtrade fruit from Hortifrut.
“We started working with them last year and they actually certified the growers they were working with at the farm level so it wasn’t just sourcing from somewhere else,” he said.
“It’s been a good program for them and we are excited to continue – it’s just an off-season program…hopefully the success will be just as good as last year.
“It’s about three months that we’re providing that, so we do our best to provide it as long as we can. They [Naturipe] also want to use their sources here in the U.S. as much as possible.”
Fairtrade America and Fair Trade USA
Following the departure of Fair Trade USA from the Fairtrade International system in 2011 and the subsequent launch of Fairtrade America, consumers were faced with two different labels in a similar arena.
“It’s really important that we’re doing our best not to confuse our customers, and that we put out a message around whatever it is that we do; our strengths and how we operate as an organization,” Mulhern said.
“We as a global organization have really ensured that everything we do goes back to the farmer, and really helping to put more money into the pockets of the farmer. But at the end of the day we’re both working towards really strong missions and visions.
“Fair Trade USA has a vision that’s a little bit different to ours. They’ve expanded into doing some things domestically, to working within seafood, but those just aren’t the visions Fairtrade International and Fairtrade America have been working on.
“We want to focus on what we do really well, which is partnering with farmers and workers in the global south and we continue to do that.”