Retailers have been asking for more fair trade product, which is certified by organizations like Fairtrade America and Fair Trade USA. ( Fairtrade America )

Retailers want more fair trade products, and fresh fruit and vegetable companies have responded.

Producers invest in a variety of sustainability programs, with initiatives that cover everything from recycling to using alternative energy sources to optimizing field practices. Social responsibility is another component on which companies have been focusing.

Fair trade began in coffee and chocolate, but its presence in produce has been growing, expanding from bananas to other items. Organizations that certify companies in this area include Fair Trade USA, which carries the Fair Trade Certified seal, and Fairtrade America, which carries the Fairtrade mark.

We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do. We need to move in that direction. — Javier Leon, Amazon Produce Network

Vineland, N.J.-based Amazon Produce Network recently started offering Fair Trade Certified mangoes.

Javier Leon, grower compliance and marketing manager, said the company started talking with growers and planning to implement the program two or three years ago.

Leon said that, first and foremost, fair trade fits with the company philosophy to be ethical and transparent.

In addition, some large retailers — most notably Costco and Whole Foods — have been asking for fair trade products.

“We could see that that’s where the market was moving,” Leon said. “When you look at what’s happening with the industry, you see that we’re moving away from just having GFSI-level audits, which is GlobalGAP or PrimusGFS, to asking for some kind of ethical audits such as SMETA (Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit) or Fair Trade, even Rainforest Alliance, which is more about sustainability but also has a component for socially responsible practices.”

Amazon Produce Network sources its Fair Trade Certified mangoes from two producers in Mexico and plans to eventually grow the program.

“We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” Leon said. “We need to move in that direction.”

The Oppenheimer Group markets a number of Fair Trade Certified products, including sweet bell peppers, long seedless cucumbers, tomatoes on the vine and mini peppers. Oppy will also offer Fair Trade Certified avocados for the first time this summer.

While the humanitarian benefits of fair trade are incredibly meaningful, the differentiating opportunity for retailers should not be overlooked. — Karin Gardner, Oppy

All together, the company sells more than a million cartons of produce under the program each year.

Karin Gardner, director of corporate communications for Vancouver, British Columbia-based Oppy, said she saw the benefits of Fair Trade Certified product when she visited pepper grower Divemex in the town of Etzatlan in Jalisco, Mexico.

“In addition to education, Fair Trade premiums are being used for dental care, medical needs like eyeglasses and cataract surgeries, things that were very expensive or not readily available before,” Gardner said.

“Also, workers earmarked funds for a home improvement program. Most of the people who work in Divemex’s Etzatlan greenhouse facilities live in the nearby town.

“One participant described with no small amount of emotion what it was like to have warm water for his kids to bathe in for the first time,” Gardner said. “In a room full of people, you could have heard a pin drop.”

Fair Trade premiums there have also funded transportation, books and registration fees for all levels of schooling for workers and their families. Local schools have benefited from improvements including a computer lab, security and new restrooms, Gardner said.

Companies that have put fair trade programs in place have found it makes sense on multiple levels.

“While the humanitarian benefits of fair trade are incredibly meaningful, the differentiating opportunity for retailers should not be overlooked,” Gardner said.

“The label represents the chance for them to connect with like-minded shoppers who understand how the fair trade standard is changing lives and communities.”


'Education is key'

She said awareness of the program is growing but remains modest.

“Since Fair Trade Certified products often cost a few cents more than similar items on the shelf, education is key,” Gardner said. “Not surprisingly, millennial consumers have a higher awareness of the fair trade label, which could be a positive sign for the future.”

Derek Mulhern, business development manager for Fairtrade America, said avocados and mangoes are some of the commodities picking up steam as far as availability of certified products, and opportunities exist in the vegetable space as well.

“There are already tons of vegetable varieties that are already certified, and if somebody wants to bring them in we just need to find an importer that wants to get certified and we’re able to do that,” Mulhern said.

As Gardner mentioned, education continues to be a major piece of the puzzle.

“What we really need to see is more products being brought in under the Fairtrade general mark so that people really understand what this is, and I think general demand will grow,” Mulhern said.

Del Rey Avocado Co., Wholesum Family Farms, Fyffes, Coliman, Index Fresh and Oke USA are among numerous other produce companies that offer fair trade produce.