Mary Jo Cook Explains the Benefits of Fair Trade

Mary Jo Cook, chief impact officer of Fair Trade USA, talks to Grocery Headquarters about the growing impact of Fair Trade.

Mary Jo

Why is Fair Trade important to farmers, to consumers and to businesses?

Fair Trade is all about high-quality products that simultaneously improve lives and protect the environment.

  • For farmers, Fair Trade is about access to markets and working capital, better prices and wages, long-term contracts, direct relationships with buyers, safe working conditions, environmental stewardship and the ability to invest in the future of their families and communities.
  • For businesses, it is a way to build stronger, more transparent supply chains, and to ensure that a lasting supply of quality products and ingredients are available for generations to come.With Fair Trade, investing in people and planet is an investment in the future of business.
  • For consumers, Fair Trade is an easy way to make every purchase matter, and to know that the products you buy are supporting farming communities and the land they work across the globe.

Why is consumer education such an important part of your work and how are you doing it?
In order for Fair Trade to work, there needs to be a perfect synergy between farmers and workers committing to better production practices, businesses committing to support those practices via their sourcing strategy and consumers demanding and purchasing Fair Trade products. This synergistic relationship based on respect and shared value is what makes Fair Trade successful and it is why Fair Trade USA is committed to supporting all three of these groups in our daily work.

Today around 40% of American consumers are aware of Fair Trade. To increase this percentage, we focus on three main areas to connect with the mainstream consumer:

  • Telling the farmer story: We live in an age where people want to know where their food comes from, who produced it and how it was grown. By telling the story of the people behind Fair Trade (whether through the media, point of sale materials or digital initiatives), people are able to connect with the farmers and workers behind their products. We like to think of it as a global farmers market.
  • Annual campaigns: Each year we develop educational campaigns around major events and holidays. Significant ones include Mother’s Day and Fair Trade Month (October). At these times we engage our Fair Trade partners in numerous online and traditional PR and marketing tactics to promote the importance of purchasing Fair Trade throughout the year.
  •  The power of social media: Social media is an important way not only for us to share stories about the benefits of purchasing Fair Trade, but also a way for individuals to spread those stories to their communities.

Recent data from SPINS cites sales increases in mass merchandise vs. natural and organic channels. To what do you attribute this growth?
We at Fair Trade USA have seen tremendous growth not only in the distribution of Fair Trade products, but also in the sheer number of product categories, SKUs and brands participating. We have seen a few trends explaining this:

  1. Consumer demand: The desire to know more about our food is expanding quickly, and consumers are demanding that brands provide sustainable options — both social and environmental — for them to purchase at the store.
  2. A win for brands: Many brands are finding that when they begin their Fair Trade journey, they are rewarded by their customers. After seeing a positive reaction to their offerings, many companies will increase their commitment to Fair Trade, whether through converting additional ingredients in a given product or embracing Fair Trade as a non-negotiable part of their business identity.

Are there any emerging growth categories for Fair Trade Certified products?
In 2013 we expect to see big spikes in produce and cocoa, as well as steady growth in coffee, tea and sugar. We are also in the process of exploring new Fair Trade categories like seafood and coconut.

Where do you see Fair Trade headed in the next 10 years?
I believe that Fair Trade will have a critical role to play in the future of sustainable sourcing. As issues like food scarcity, food safety, supply-chain transparency, workers rights and global warming continue to surface, the world will look deeper at new and alternative methods of production. Though Fair Trade alone cannot solve these issues, it will be an important part of the solution.

What is your role at Fair Trade USA?
I am the chief impact officer at Fair Trade USA. In short, this means I am responsible for making sure Fair Trade works all the way from farm to shelf. As the former vice president of innovation at The Clorox Company, I joined Fair Trade USA with the intent of using innovation as a method to dramatically increase the impact and relevancy of Fair Trade for everyone in the supply chain – especially to better serve the needs of farmers and workers who grow the food we consume every day.

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