Jeff Geipel shops for groceries with an eagle eye. The Vancouver waiter is looking for labels showing that the items he buys are made with good labour practices, environmental sustainability, democratic practices and fair prices paid to farmers and producers.
For Mr. Geipel, the executive director of Fair Trade Vancouver, a volunteer group that promotes fair trade shopping, the labels showing products are certified as fair trade are helpful seals of approval for consumers with consciences.
"The labels are popping up everywhere," he says. "More and more stores are carrying products with them - and bragging about it."
The labels, also known as certification marks or logos, correspond to the registration of products and producers by TransFair Canada, the national certifier for fair trade, as well as Fair Trade Labelling Organizations International (FLO), the global umbrella fair trade organization to which TransFair belongs. The labels of the two bodies, which are interchangeable, show that a product is certified and complies with fair trade standards.
Among the fair trade-certified and labelled goods now on store shelves are coffee, by far the most common product line, as well as chocolate, herbs, fresh fruits, nuts, cosmetics and wine. Many come from small independent companies, but giants such as Cadbury Adams Canada Inc. also feature fair trade labels on some items.
Michael Zelmer, spokesman for TransFair Canada, says the labelling issue is critical, given the increasing number of claims in the fair trade marketplace. "At the end of the day it comes down to trust."
The labelling of fair trade goods began in 1988 with the establishment of international organizations governing fair trade and grew into a rigorous certification system focused on producers of goods, he says. Today there is a significant consumer element to the labels, which are key to fair trade success, he says.
"It's a way for consumers to know that a third-party check has been put onto the product to ensure it meets fair trade standards," Mr. Zelmer explains.
Products also must comply with a host of other requirements. For example, a "composite product policy" governs the exact content of fair trade ingredients in certified goods. "We don't want products to be labelled as fair trade if there's a minuscule amount of fair trade content," he adds.
Making products that are certified and labelled as fair trade is a long, complex and costly process.
Brooks Pepperfire Foods Inc. of Rigaud, Queb., a "small-batch" maker of spicy jarred foods and wholesaler of fresh specialty chili peppers from all over the world, so far has 17 products bearing the fair trade label but only those with significant chocolate, sugar and coffee content, says Tina Books, the company's vice-president of marketing. Chilies are not yet fair trade items; Brooks and her husband Greg, who started the company six years ago, are working to bring their chili suppliers in places such as Haiti up to fair trade standards. However, for some farmers the $5,000 price-tag of actual registration is prohibitive.
Fair trade labelling is the goal, Ms. Brooks says, because "our customers require peace of mind…and the more sustainable I can make my suppliers the better my customers are going to like it." However, Pepperfire is committed to the principles of fair trade, while for some other companies the fair trade label is "a marketing device," she says.
Danielle Marchessault, president of Equicosta Inc., an importer of organic and fair trade bananas in Drummondville, Queb., says the labelling is important to the stores - including a growing number of supermarket chains - her family business has been wholesaling to for the last two years.
"When you're fair trade-certified there are some rules," she says, adding that labelling is an education for consumers. "The label means never losing the spirit of fair trade, it's about paying the right price, sustaining the environment, maintaining human rights."
Mr. Zelmer says the labels create awareness among consumers, who are invited to review and comment on the standards for fair trade set by TransFair and FLO that are behind them.
As more and more products are registered and labelled as fair trade, it is increasingly possible to find them even in mainstream stores, says Fair Trade Vancouver's Jeff Geipel. The group's website features a chart and a point-and-click map for finding stores that carry fair trade goods and showing what products they carry, which is helpful for shoppers.
"Everyone's busy," he says, "no one has time to research every company and every ethical claim."
Mr. Geipel adds that he would like to see more of the labels, although much will depend on education and the sensitivity of the general public about the issue, especially as fair trade goods come at a greater cost in tough economic times. "It's a challenge," he adds.
Special to The Globe and Mail