Labelling it fair

Consumers are increasingly interested in purchasing fairtrade certified products but the labelling can be confusing, reports MJ Deschamps
Fairtrade labels are no longer limited just to products in food stores. Now consumers worldwide are adding fairtrade products to their beauty routines, with fairly traded natural ingredients such as shea butter, cocoa butter, olive oil, honey, sugar and plant extracts being used in body and hair care products, balms, scrubs, cleansers, masks and more...

Consumers are increasingly interested in purchasing fairtrade certified products but the labelling can be confusing, reports MJ Deschamps

Fairtrade labels are no longer limited just to products in food stores. Now consumers worldwide are adding fairtrade products to their beauty routines, with fairly traded natural ingredients such as shea butter, cocoa butter, olive oil, honey, sugar and plant extracts being used in body and hair care products, balms, scrubs, cleansers, masks and more. And as this segment grows, there is increasing focus on labelling schemes, where third party certifiers are responsible for approving ‘fairtrade certified’ labels on products, indicating to consumers that farmers and workers producing said goods were paid fair wages and work in safe, environmentally friendly spaces.

Meanwhile as fairtrade awareness rises, labelling standards are toughening, too. In January, Fair Trade USA (the leading third party certifier of fairtrade products in America) introduced significant revisions to its multiple ingredients product policy, and with it a new redesigned certification label. Under this, only products that contain 100% fairtrade certified ingredients can bear the full ‘Fair Trade Certified’ label, while products that contain at least 20% certified fairtrade ingredients will now carry the ‘Fair Trade Certified Ingredients’ label.

“Increasingly, we are finding companies want to understand more what is in products, and what influence has been made on the communities it came from,” comments Maya Spaull, director of innovation at Fair Trade USA. She says that while companies have been implementing fairtrade practices for years, emerging labelling schemes have really propelled the industry. “I think now that there’s a certification model [for fairtrade], you are now seeing more traditional brands starting to adopt it.”

All Dr Bronner’s Magic Soaps’ main ingredients are fairtrade and organic

However according to Nicole Tyrimou, a London based beauty and personal care analyst at market researcher Euromonitor International, the lack of a universal standard or clear international definition is limiting companies’ efforts. “For fairtrade products to really take off in beauty, a number of issues will have to be resolved,” she says, explaining that consumer confusion about the different certifications is discouraging companies from developing more fairtrade products. For example, NaTrue (International Natural and Organic Cosmetics Association Aisbl), Fair Trade USA and Fairtrade International’s New Standard Framework (NSF) and the Institute for Marketecology’s (IMO) Fair for Life Social & FairTrade Certification System, all have different requirements for fairtrade certification. Tyrimou added that the terms natural, organic and fairtrade also tend to confuse consumers, “as many assume fairtrade products to consist of organic materials and vice versa when that is not always the case.”

And while Fair Trade USA’s new labels are touting 100% fairtrade for some products, the UK’s Fairtrade Foundation requires some of the lowest percentages of fairtrade ingredients for personal care certification (5% for ‘leave on’ products or 2% for ‘rinse off’ products).

“We do have thresholds…but obviously we always encourage [manufacturers] to exceed them,” says Katie Franks, commercial development officer at the Fairtrade Foundation, where the fairtrade cosmetics category for certification was introduced in 2009. According to the organisation, one reason why fairtrade content is sometimes considerably lower in beauty products is because they are usually made of water, synthetic and natural ingredients, with natural ingredients a relatively low proportion. And since only natural ingredients can be fairtrade certified, it is not always possible for all ingredients to be fairtrade.

“Because personal care products typically use so many different ingredients, [making these products fairtrade] is a huge challenge, and it is an area where consumers really have to work to educate themselves,” says Renée Bowers, executive director of US based trade association the Fair Trade Federation.

There are some good practice examples, such as British fairtrade body care company Visionary Soap, which sells products with percentages of fairtrade ingredients far above national minimum standards. Its soaps contain 60% fairtrade ingredients, while its body butters have 99% to 100%, lip balms 34% and body oils 19%. Another company, US based Dr Bronner’s Magic Soaps, sources all its main ingredients (coconut, palm, olive and mint oils) from certified fairtrade and organic sources, which together account for over 95% of the company’s agricultural raw materials.

Overall, comments Farah Ahmed, chair of the Natural/Organic Cosmetics Committee for the US based Personal Care Products Council, fairtrade means different things to different people and current labelling reflects that. “We need to allow some flexibility for companies because each formulation is different,” she explains. “Principles are relatively the same [internationally] but they’re not so aligned that would allow us to have a strict standard.”

The industry needs to think in volume terms, too. A small manufacturer producing a moisturiser with shea butter, for example, may boast a high level of fairtrade ingredients in its products and be certified fairtrade, while multinational mass market brands might buy more fairtrade shea butter overall but their percentages per product may be lower, since production is high. “There are companies that source in a fairtrade manner that consumers don’t really know about, because [the thresholds are too low] to put it on their labels,” adds Ahmed.

Consumers are becoming much more aware and are starting to do their research. “We’re encouraging brands not only to introduce new ranges but also to convert their current ranges which is really easy to do with the variety of different ingredients that producers have and what we are able to offer as well,” says Franks.

Unlike some consumer trends that may come and go, a successful fairtrade policy requires serious dedication from a company, cautions Bowers. “It’s really based on a long term relationship in which the buyer is invested in that community as well. The challenge is that there are very few buyers willing to make that type of full investment and commitment.”

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