Chomp! Photo by <a href="">Robert Donovan</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
Chomp! Photo by Robert Donovan (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Fair Trade Trick-or-Treat

Oct 30, 2008

Children usually don costumes on Halloween to collect candy, but this year nearly a quarter million households will find a dark surprise when they open their doors—thousands of kids handing out fair trade chocolate.

In partnership with ten other nonprofit organizations and three fair trade chocolate companies, Global Exchange, a San Francisco–based human rights organization, has distributed reverse trick-or-treat kits across the United States and Canada. In addition to getting a little chocolate of their own, participating children will hand out samples of fair trade chocolate and a card describing the poverty, child labor, and environmental problems associated with the mainstream chocolate industry.

The creators of the program see Halloween as an opportunity to engage people in social justice in a transformative way. "Halloween is one night when we all go door to door to talk to our neighbors," said Adrienne Fitch-Frankel, Fair Trade Campaign Director at Global Exchange. "We wanted to build on that cultural institution so people feel comfortable reaching out to their community to make a big impact."

Chocolate is one of the world's most traded commodities, following closely behind oil and coffee. By choosing fair trade chocolate, consumers can improve the lives of the producers who supply the raw material. Fair trade farmers receive either the market price plus $150, or a minimum price of $1,750 per metric ton, whichever is higher. The price of cocoa beans spiked to $3,000 in June 2008 but has since fallen.

In addition to receiving a fair or a premium price, fair trade farmers have access to affordable credit and a direct link to buyers, whereas farmers outside the fair trade system are subject to price fluctuations and manipulation by middlemen, which can prevent them from earning a decent living even when market prices are high.

In exchange for fair prices, certified products are audited to ensure that products are produced according to ethical standards set forth by Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). Fair trade certification standards respect human rights, ensure safe work places, and encourage sustainable farming practices that protect biodiversity and the environment. Fair prices are calculated based on the additional costs farmers incur in meeting these more rigorous requirements.

The use of child labor or forced labor is especially problematic outside the fair trade sector. Prices can be so low that farmers turn to the exploitation of children to reduce labor costs. In West Africa, where the majority of the world's cocoa is produced, a 2002 report from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture paints a picture of a sector "with stagnant technology, low yields, and an increasing demand for unskilled workers trapped in a circle of poverty." Children under age 14 do dangerous work for low or no pay, such as clearing fields with machetes and applying pesticides without protective gear. Often they have no connection to the farms where they work, having been sold or trafficked.

Meager earnings from cocoa also prevent farm owners from sending their children to school. FLO requires that money from the fair trade premium be used for community improvement, and some of that money gets funneled into education.

"Before becoming a member of Kuapa in 1994 we were always in financial crisis and we always had our children at home," said Lucy Manusah of the Kuapa Kookoo Cooperative in Ghana. "Now because of better and more timely payments, including the bonus from Kuapa, I can afford the fees to send my children to school."

The environmental requirements of fair trade chocolate encourage farmers to cultivate under natural canopy and use fewer pesticides, which protects water sources, rain forest, and biodiversity. While fair trade products are not necessarily grown without fertilizers, they are used minimally.

The bureaucratic certification process is discouraging to some farmers. Without the assistance of agricultural outreach officers, many farmers are not literate enough to wade through the mounds of paperwork required for certification and inspection. Others worry that fair trade chocolate is more expensive. But on the consumer end the price difference is not substantial, given the higher quality cacao content.

Global Exchange hopes that the children who participate in the reverse trick-or-treat campaign will make the connection with the children who grow cocoa. As Fitch-Frankel notes, it comes down to one question: "Do you want to pay for the labor in a chocolate bar?"

Louisa Chan is a graduate student at Columbia University, where she is pursuing an M.P.A. in environmental science and policy.

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