We just got back from the Annual Fair Trade Federation Conference. It was in Del Mar, CA this year which was a pleasant change of scenery for all the winter-lorn East Coasters. Palm trees, sunshine and outdoor meals at the hotel abounded.
We relish these few days together every year – there were 250 attendees this year, the biggest attendance in the conference history! It is so great to get to hang out with fellow members, both wholesale and retail, and chat about our struggles, our successes and where we see the fair trade movement headed.
This year there were several amazing panels and speakers:
- Katy Leakey (The Leakey Collection) – Plenary Speaker
- Stacey Toews (co-founder of Level Ground Trading) – Plenary Speaker
- “What’s Next for Fair Trade” Panel w/ founders of Numi Tea, Guayaki Tea, AlterEco, & Big Tree Farms
- Food & Farm Symposium on Brand Trust w/ Kris Lin-Bronner (Dr. Bronner’s) & Joe Whinney (CEO of Theo Chocolate)
- Anne Kelly (Mayan Hands) – Discussion on the true value of Guatemalan Huipiles (more on this in a future post)
Katy Leakey, of The Leakey Collection, was the first Plenary Speaker. She addressed the whole conference, telling the story of how they began their work with the Maasai women of Kenya and the empowerment they now have. It was fascinating to hear their story – even though we’ve been carrying their Zulugrass jewelry for many years, I didn’t quite know the whole story. Read Katy’s whole story here.
Stacey Toews, co-founder of Level Ground Trading, also spoke to the whole conference about his experience with small farmers around the world. Stacey was an enthused speaker, his passion for fair trade, farming, and the environment coming through in everything he said. He reminded us that “Every day, three times a day, we need a farmer” – a very true statement we can often forget if we don’t live on a farm and raise/grow our own food.
Level Ground envisions a world that is sustainable for the earth and for the people living on it. They uphold the value of quality ingredients and pride themselves on their transparency. Below is a screen shot from their purchase history page online. They provide a detailed log of every container of coffee they import, what country it comes from, how much they paid, the fair trade premium paid and how much went to the farmer and the co-op. This attention to detail and transparency in their business is so awesome and inspiring – they aim to make trade a “level ground” upon which we can build a better, more just world!
There was an interesting panel led by Joe Whinney (left), CEO of Theo Chocolate, about developing brand trust. For fair trade companies this is getting harder as more fair trade labels emerge and the messaging gets fuzzy. Consumers don’t know what to trust when the labels are confusing and mean different things to different companies. Some fair trade brands consider themselves “beyond fair trade” or “gold standard fair trade,” but how is the consumer supposed to know what that means exactly?
One panel member said, “Telling stories and having good intentions are not the same as transparency.” In order for a brand to truly be trusted, it’s not enough to tell the stories of your products having the best intentions in mind, it must also be able to back those stories up with facts and figures. Another panel member shared a statistic: In 2013 54% of people surveyed thought transparency was important and in 2014 that figure rose to 68%.
The panel also discussed the fact that fair trade certification is a useful tool, but works best when implemented as part of the brand’s overall mission. 87% of consumers surveyed want meaningful interactions with the brands they support. In other words, consumers want to be able to engage with the brands they support on a rational, emotional and societal level.
Brands like Theo Chocolate and Dr. Bronner’s work to use fair trade as a platform to both engage their conscious consumers and also to allow for transparency throughout their business.
Another interesting Food & Farm Symposium panel was called “What’s Next for Fair Trade.” The founders of Big Tree Farms, Numi Tea, AlterEco, and Guayaki Tea discussed the significance of the fair trade certification label. When they began their companies, they were all huge proponents of certification, using it almost militantly as the basis of the good their products stood for. Today, these companies all have several labels (USDA organic, B Corp, NonGMO, Fair Trade) to describe their product. The labeling landscape has changed and companies like Numi Tea, who created their own labor standards and impact app, have been at the forefront.
Today, consumers simply want quality products – having so many labels almost get in the way. The value added to the consumer is the quality of the product itself. Some of the brands on the panel discussed the possibility of removing the labels altogether – would their customers still have trust in the products? Would it actually help to clear the clutter and allow the brands and the products themselves send a more clear message?
The quality of these brands’ products comes as a result of their commitment to sustainable, fair trade – it goes hand in hand. This doesn’t mean they will be getting rid of their labels or certifications anytime soon, but they may highlight them less. For instance, Guayaki recently changed their packaging and moved all 7 of their labels to the back of the bottle, instead of being right on the front. We’re at an interesting intersection in the fair trade movement, and it’s fantastic that discussion like this are happening. The panel might not have determined exactly “What’s Next for Fair Trade,” but they definitely offered some food for thought.
Here are some photos from the conference: