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The provenance of what we consume is a complex issue. Often our daily indulgences – tea, coffee, chocolate and sugar – come at a great cost: slavery, poverty, ecological destruction, human displacement and animal extinction.

Still, we want to enjoy that morning coffee, guilt-free, so, we look to the labels for the green light – logos with birds, frogs or smiling farm workers.

So how do you make a better choice? And why are so many people in the food service industry skeptical of Fairtrade certifications? With the Toronto Fair Trade Show June 13-14 (thefairtradeshow.com), here’s a look at some of our favourite – but problematic – products.

Signe Langford

Cacao, Cocoa, Chocolate

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When it comes to one of the world’s most cherished ingredients, Brett Tarver, World Vision Canada spokesman, is blunt: “It is estimated that nearly two million children are exploited and work in slave-like conditions in the cocoa industry, work that is dirty, dangerous and degrading.” Other issues involved in production are slavery, working conditions, illegal cacao farming on protected land and primate eradication in those areas.

But it can be difficult for chocolatiers to get their hands on ethical raw ingredients. “Fair trade products are usually more expensive, not always available and can be inconsistent,” says Bruno Elsier, the pastry chef and production manager at Dolcini by Joseph, a fine pastry shop in Vaughan, Ont. “But I have refused to work with a product if I hear there’s something wrong with it, and would do so again. Now, I work with Callebaut and Cacao Barry who both have their own, independent monitoring processes.”

Brand conscious: With only one or two Fairtrade-certified products in their brand portfolios, Cadbury, Ferrero, Mars, Nestle and Hershey’s all have a way to go, but they are working toward the goal of 100-per-cent sustainable, ethical cocoa by 2020. Already there are: Divine Chocolate (farmer-owned), Camino, Chocolove, Alter Eco, Belvas, Carrefour de solidarité internationale, IKEA, Green & Black, Theo and Côte d’Or.

Tea

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According to Louise Roberge, president of the Tea Association of Canada, Canada annually imports 18- to 20-million kilos of tea, mostly from India, Sri Lanka, China and Kenya, where working conditions, child labour and environmental damage are major issues.

Tea importer and Pluck Teas owner Jennifer Commins prefers to use products certified by Ethical Tea Partnership to avoid any “greenwashing” in the products she sells. It’s an organization with educators, advocates and auditors in the field, with a mandate to monitor, educate and improve conditions for workers and tea-growing environments.

Brand conscious: Metropolitan Tea Company Ltd., Mother Parkers, Taylors of Harrogate, Bigelow, Tetley and Twinings – to name but a few – are member companies with Ethical Tea Partnership. Both Red Rose and Lipton own one Rainforest Alliance-certified estate in Kenya, and are working toward more.

Coffee

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Poverty, ecological destruction, deforestation, loss of bird habitats and child labour are often caused by coffee farms.

Coffee importer David Pritchard, who sells online and at his Mimico, Ont., coffee shop Birds & Beans, says that while imperfect, Fairtrade certification is important. “Fairtrade tracks coffee beans from the farm to the roaster; without them I believe we would see more poverty and more environmental degradation.” But it depends on what consumers are looking for in the label “fair.” According to the David Suzuki Foundation, the Fairtrade label focuses mainly on labour practices, not farming techniques or pesticide use.

Brand conscious: Ethical Bean, Birds & Beans and any brand that bears a seal from one of the aforementioned organizations.

Sugar

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The World Wildlife Fund suggests that sugar plantations might well be the single greatest cause of biodiversity loss in the world. And in 2013, according to World Vision, Canada imported $512-million worth of sugar from countries where child labour is rampant, including El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala.

Toronto-based private chef Eyal Liebman admits to never having given much thought to where the sugar he uses comes from or how it’s made, even though: “I definitely read the labels for Fairtrade certification regarding chocolate [he uses Valrhona], and as a consumer, I try to drink Fairtrade coffee.” Leibman points out that the impact to the bottom line between non- and Fairtrade-certified is only about 20 cents a plate, yet even that amount has been enough to make many restaurant owners balk.

Brand conscious: Camino, Wholesome Sweeteners, Crofter’s, Sobeys – all produce Fairtrade or organic sugar under the watchful eye of either Fairtrade or Quality Assurance International. The two biggest players – Redpath and Lantic – do not.

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