Saturday, October 30, 2010

What is Fair Trade, anyway?

Given it’s almost Halloween, it seems appropriate to talk about chocolate for a minute. I’m not a fanatic like some people I know (Joyce) but I do love a little something sweet after a meal and lately I’ve really taken to dark chocolate. And I mean good dark chocolate, not the junky stuff they sell at Duane Reade. They say dark chocolate is a health food so I figure as long as I don’t do anything crazy like scarf down a whole bar at one sitting, I’m doing my body a favor, right?

My current favorite is from Equal Exchange, a Fair Trade member and maker of very delicious chocolates. I like their Organic Extra Dark Chocolate bar, made with 80% Panamanian cocoa beans. The remaining 3 ingredients are cocoa butter from the Dominican Republic, organic sugar from Paraguay, and vanilla from Madagascar (that's right - no corn syrup, artificial flavors, or emulsifiers like soy lecithin). It says on the wrapper “By choosing Equal Exchange fairly traded products, you support a food system that builds stronger farming communities, creates a more equitable trade model, and preserves our planet through sustainable farming methods.”

This all sounds great and true to my assumption a product with Fair Trade certification is a good thing but I have to admit, I don’t truly know what Fair Trade means. Chris Martin of Coldplay is an advocate, but should I really trust a rock star (other than Bono, of course) to guide me on matters of ethics? Since I’m on the fence on that one, I did a little research…

Fair Trade is most commonly associated with coffee, which was the first agricultural product to be certified Fair Trade in 1986. But the real beginnings started more than forty years prior, in the 1940’s, when European and North American church groups, in an attempt to alleviate suffering in poverty-stricken and underdeveloped regions of the world, began importing and selling those citizen’s handicrafts. Because their products were sold to customers directly, without a middleman, the impoverished were able to receive a fair price and higher return for their products.

The next few decades saw much of Fair Trade’s growth occur in Europe where it was often tied to political groups taking a stance against what they saw as the growing dominance of global corporations in the marketplace. The main vehicles for Fair Trade, Alternative Trading Organizations (ATOs), flourished. Over the years, the focus of Fair Trade shifted from handcrafted goods to agricultural commodities.

Fair Trade arrived in the United States in 1986 with Equal Exchange, makers of my delicious chocolate bar. The three founders met while managing a food co-op in New England and decided they wanted to do something to raise awareness and respect for where food comes from, how it’s grown, and who grows it. They chose fairly traded coffee from Nicaragua as their first product. Back then coffee was not the ubiquitous beverage it is today; the guys from Equal Exchange bet on coffee’s huge growth potential and man, were they ever right. Twenty years later, the company is going strong selling a range of organic and/or sustainable products that includes tea, cocoa, chocolate, sugar, bananas, nuts and berries from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the United States.

The do-gooder side of me loves the concept of my Fair Trade chocolate bar and what it stands for: stable, profitable income and safe working conditions for small-scale farmers; investment in local communities; encouragement and support for environmentally-safe farming practices. The food-lover side of me craves the creamy, rich, non-bitter taste of this dark chocolate (an 80% chocolate bar that’s not bitter and chalky is a miracle, actually). And it’s organic to boot.

There is no doubt Equal Exchange is more expensive than Hershey’s. I wish it weren’t so; living in Manhattan I pay through the nose for everything and for once it would be nice to catch a break on something. But life is about choices and I don't think food is the place to start skimping on cost. The fantastic taste, ethical production, and championing of the Little Guy makes it worth the extra $$ to me.

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