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Fair Trade products are typically less popular when food prices rise. This time, it's different

October signifies Fair Trade Month. Fair Trade food products often face challenges in maintaining their popularity amidst rising food prices. However, this time, there's a notable difference

October marks Fair Trade Month, a period where we turn our attention to fair-trade products, even as food prices continue to rise. The question naturally arises: Why celebrate fair trade when many of its products come with a price premium, making them less affordable for consumers grappling with mounting food bills? Indeed, Fairtrade-certified products often command prices anywhere from 20% to 50% higher than their conventional counterparts. It is imperative though that we engage in a discourse on fair trade, given our collective concerns regarding sustainability and social justice for farmers worldwide.

While Fairtrade food products may not yet have achieved mass-market status, the recognition and credibility associated with them have unquestionably grown. According to a recent Globe Scan survey, more than 57% of Canadians have encountered Fairtrade logos while shopping for groceries. The primary certified products encompass coffee, chocolate, tea, and bananas, with fair-trade bananas making significant inroads into various stores just over the past year. The core tenets of Fairtrade encompass reshaping trade dynamics by providing fairer prices, ensuring decent working conditions, and delivering an equitable deal for farmers and workers in developing nations. This paradigm shift inherently incorporates sustainable farming practices.

READ: Sustainable shopping: Where do we go from here?

Throughout history, economic cycles have influenced consumer perceptions of initiatives such as fair trade. Notably, during the great financial crisis fifteen years ago, the proportion of Canadians expressing significant or very high concern about climate change and environmental issues declined from 71% in 2008 to 46% in 2010, as per data from Globe Scan. Today, amidst surging food prices, that figure has dipped from 62% to 59%. Unlike previous periods of economic hardship, climate change continues to remain a paramount concern in Canada. This shift is being driven, once again, by younger generations, including Gen Zs and Millennials, despite recent challenges faced at the grocery store. Although only one in three Canadians has purchased fair-trade certified products in the last six months, a majority of them fall below the age of 43. 

One compelling incentive for grocers to expand their offerings of fair-trade products lies in the potential to forge stronger connections with farmers further up the supply chain. Grocers currently face diminished social capital, as a substantial number of Canadians believe that corporate profiteering is unjustly inflating food prices. This is an issue that grocers must confront. Aligning their product lines with underprivileged farmers in regions where socio-economic justice remains a daily struggle could be a strategic move, particularly in the present economic climate.

READ: Canadian Grocer's 2023 Produce Operations Survey: Labour and sustainability

It would not be surprising to witness a burgeoning assortment of fair-trade products on grocery store shelves in the coming years, precisely for the reasons outlined above. Consumer trust is fundamentally rooted in the desire to effect meaningful change. While grocers have long supported food banks and various charitable causes, these endeavours often lack conspicuous promotion. Conversely, Fairtrade stands out as a visible, transparent, trusted, and trustworthy option – qualities that can enhance grocers' ethical standing in the eyes of the public. A recent Globe Scan survey reveals that more than 85% of Canadians trust Fairtrade certification labels, a level of trust that grocers can only aspire to at present. Thus, strategic alignment with Fairtrade makes eminent sense.

It is essential to recognize that Fairtrade may not be within the financial reach of all consumers due to its price premium. Nevertheless, it bridges the economic gap between affluent and impoverished populations worldwide, imbuing consumers with a sense of social responsibility when they opt for Fairtrade products. This compelling dynamic is not one to be easily dismissed.

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