May 7, 2010- Vancouver scores a first with fair trade status

The Vancouver Sun
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Vancouver has become the first major Canadian city to be certified for Fair Trade Town status.

That means it buys products such as coffee, tea, sugar and even soccer balls that have been made ethically and for which producers — largely low-income farmers and labourers — have been paid fairly.

In a largely symbolic gesture aimed at showing the city is leading by example, Vancouver council on Thursday voted to take the final step toward achieving Fair Trade Town status.

It did so by completing an application by Fair Trade Vancouver, a non-profit group, to have the city declared a fair-trade environment.

The city says it likely won't cost taxpayers any more to stock its meetings, cafeteria and offices "where possible and practicable" with fair trade items. That's because since 2005, Vancouver has had an ethical purchasing policy that does largely the same thing.

But council hopes the Fair Trade Town designation will give a solid boost to the growing consumer movement toward buying goods from cooperatives and countries that agree to pay living wages to those who produce them.

"It means you are committed to a path of progress on your purchasing decisions," said Coun. Andrea Reimer.

"I don't think I've ever had a taxpayer tell me they want me to use their taxes to drive down labour standards and environmental protection in other countries."

Advocates of fair trade said Vancouver's decision will help convince the general public that buying products that cut out the middleman and deliver more profits to poor farmer workers is increasingly the right way to go.

And they point to an increasing array of price-competitive fair trade goods that have made their way into everyday use.

In Metro Vancouver, a surprisingly large variety of goods are now available under the fair trade label, including coffees, spices, vegetables, rice, fruit, flowers, wine and those Pakistani-made soccer balls.

"I was in Save-On-Foods the other day and I found fair trade vanilla beans of all things," said Lloyd Bernhardt, president of Ethical Bean Coffee, one of a growing number of specialty coffee producers in the Lower Mainland.

If there wasn't that kind of demand, a large retail supermarket like Save-On wouldn't stock the product, he said.

The non-profit fair trade movement in Canada is less than 20 years old. A paltry 22,000 kilograms of fair trade-labelled coffee was first imported into Canada in 1998. But by 2008, that had grown to more than five million kilograms and now many specialty coffee shops proudly brag that their products are grown on fair-wage plantations.

In the intervening years, Transfair Canada, the Canadian arm of Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO), the not-for-profit worldwide certification organization, has added 11 categories. In 2007, wine and cosmetics became the newest products to be imported.

The worldwide program operates on a complex system of certification and scrutiny by FLO, which audits producers, usually small agricultural or manufacturing co-operatives that agree to certain labour standards and rates of pay. It also audits the purchasers of those products to make sure they are selling the products for a fair price. In Canada the work is done by Transfair Canada.

Despite that growth, fair trade coffee represents only two per cent of all coffee sales in Canada, according to Jeff Geipel, executive director of Fair Trade Vancouver.

By comparison, in Britain, one-fifth of all coffee comes from fair trade plantations. Fair trade bananas also account for less than two per cent of all sales in Canada. But in some European countries, where fair trade policies have been in place longer, half of all banana sales come from certified cooperative plantations, he said.

But Doug Smith, general manager of the East End Food Co-op on Commercial Drive, says it's still a struggle to find a balance between buying ethically sourced and fair trade products and getting even his devoted buyers to put them in their shopping carts. He estimates some products are priced 20- to 30-per-cent higher than non-fair trade items.

"We want to buy ethically, locally, but also affordably," he said. "There is a growing demand from the public for fair trade, but it also comes at something of a price."

Smith's co-op, for example, does a rip-roaring trade in comparably priced fair trade-labelled coffee beans from companies like Ethical Bean and Latin Organics, priced at $11 to $14 a pound. It also sells fair trade organic bananas for 91 cents a pound, about 30-per-cent more than the price of mass-production bananas sold in major food stores.

But the trade is slower in other products, such as Coca Camino bitter chocolate, which can sell for upwards of $5.50 a bar. "Our members still buy them, but they are not cheap."

Geipel said many fair trade products are becoming cost-competitive as consumer demand rises. That Cocoa Camino chocolate was first brought into Eastern Canada and shipped across to Vancouver. But with growing demand, it now is being shipped directly the Port of Vancouver, resulting in lower costs.

Thursday's unanimous council decision means the city will become the 12th Canadian city to obtain certification. At least three other B.C. municipalities — Golden, Revelstoke and Nakusp — have already been given status. Three others — Kimberley, Creston and Cranbrook — are in the application process, along with Montreal and Quebec City. Other major cities in the world with Fair Trade Town status include San Francisco, Rome, London and Paris, according to Geipel.

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Fri, 05/07/2010