COLUMBIA — Before you buy your sweetheart a box of chocolates this Valentine's Day, you might want to consider where that candy came from.
Some cocoa farmers in western Africa are struggling because they don't make enough money to survive, said Jessica Canfield, executive director at the Mustard Seed Fair Trade store. Some farms even use slave labor.
Kristi Turner, Rainbow House shelter director and Christian Chapel church member, visited Ghana in 2009 and saw the effects of human trafficking. Her story is posted on The Watchword blog.
Mustard Seed is selling a different kind of chocolate that directly supports the farmers who harvest the crop. This kind of chocolate, Canfield said, helps combat poverty and human trafficking in countries where cocoa is farmed.
It's called fair trade chocolate.
"We know where the chocolate comes from," Canfield said. "And we know the people who made the chocolate are getting paid fairly for their work."
Mustard Seed works as a nonprofit retailer of fair trade products, meaning it sells international goods that directly benefit the artisans. Mustard Seed makes no profit from the sales. The artisans not only make what's considered a living wage in their homelands, but fair trade organizations also offer some farmers health care, child care and budgeting classes, Canfield said.
To get the fair trade label on a product, a U.S. company has to go through a certification process with TransFairUSA, a nonprofit organization. It is charged with analyzing every company applying for the fair trade label on agricultural products such as chocolate, coffee, tea and sugar, among others. TransFairUSA is part of an international umbrella organization called Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International.
But choosing which products support international regulations isn't quite that easy. For instance, not every company that lacks the fair trade label is involved in human trafficking.
Patric Chocolate in Columbia isn't fair trade certified, but owner Alan McClure believes the label is irrelevant in his case. McClure makes chocolate and sells it through local retailers such as The Root Cellar and Clover's Natural Market.
McClure buys his cocoa beans directly from farmers. When he buys premium cocoa, he said he pays more than the price set by fair trade standards, in one case paying more than twice the amount. It's part of the process of paying for quality ingredients that will make excellent chocolate, he said.
"I'm not saying that fair trade is a bad thing or unfair," McClure said. "It's probably better to see the fair trade logo on products made by the bigger companies, but I'm not so sure, with the smaller companies, that the same thing always holds true."
In 2006 and 2007, McClure met with about 20 farmers in Belize and tried to buy their cocoa. While they wanted to sell to him, they weren't allowed to because they belonged to the fair trade certified company Toledo Cacao Growers Association. McClure said the company had cooperative bylaws requiring the farmers to go through the association to sell their goods or risk being kicked out.
"Is that democratic? Is that fair? I don't think so," McClure said.
But to Canfield, supporting fair trade is important because there are set standards that everyone can see.
"With fair trade, it provides us with a transparent alternative," Canfield said.
Deb Montague encourages everyone to buy fair trade products. As co-director of the Compassion/Justice Outreach team at Christian Chapel, she has been leading a campaign to raise awareness about fair trade chocolate.
Chocolate harvested by slaves makes its way into many of our products, but buying fair trade chocolate helps prevent that, Montague said.
That's why Canfield started buying fair trade products.
On a trip to India, she saw the effects of human trafficking first-hand as she worked with women rescued from brothels, she said.
"I discovered through human trafficking that fair trade was an answer to providing for healing and sustainability for women trying to come out of that lifestyle," Canfield said. "They could provide for themselves and stay out of the sex industry."
Some products at Mustard Seed are made by the same women Canfield worked with in India.
"There are certainly pros and cons to the fair trade movement," Canfield said. "One would be wise to look at fair trade and be willing to evaluate it and find areas that we can improve on."