Six Questions with Paul Rice, President & CEO of Fair Trade USA

From by Lani Furbank
Six Questions with Paul Rice, President & CEO of Fair Trade USA

Food Tank, in partnership with American University, is hosting the 2nd Annual Food Tank Summit in Washington, D.C. on April 20–21, 2016. 

This two-day event will feature more than 75 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policymakers, government officials, and students will come together for panels on topics including food waste, urban agriculture, family farmers, farm workers, and more. 

Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Paul Rice, the President & CEO of Fair Trade USA. Fair Trade USA is one of the sponsors of the summit.

Food Tank (FT): Tell us a little bit about Fair Trade USA and your role.

Paul Rice (PR): Fair Trade USA is a nonprofit organization and the leading certifier of Fair Trade products in North America. Our work supports sustainable livelihoods for farmers and workers, protects fragile ecosystems in agricultural communities, and builds strong, transparent supply chains through independent, third-party certification.

As for my story, I came to Fair Trade via the mountains of Nicaragua. Prior to opening our first office in 1998, I spent 11 years in the country organizing cooperatives and training coffee farmers to become more self-reliant, democratic, and competitive. It was during this time that I realized that the market, when harnessed in just the right way, could be a powerful tool for change in farming communities. Through this thing called “Fair Trade,” which was beginning to take off in Europe at the time, farmers could earn more money for their work, produce more responsibly, and take their future into their own hands.

We’ve come a long way since then. Today, Fair Trade USA works with over 1,000 brands, sourcing Fair Trade products from 80 countries worldwide. You can find everything from Fair Trade coffee and tea to sugar, spices, cocoa, apparel, coconut, and even seafood.  

FT: What initiatives have you launched recently, or are planning to launch, that will further your company’s sustainability efforts?

PR: The newest Fair Trade product categories are apparel and home goods, coconut, and seafood. We enter a new sector when we see both tremendous need on the ground as well as a growing demand from the market.

Our apparel program, which launched in 2010 as a pilot, is one of our fastest growing categories. You can now find Fair Trade-certified lines at Patagonia, West Elm, prAna, PACT, and many others. Just three years after the Rana Plaza factory collapse, both consumers and the apparel industry are looking for new ways to produce and identify products that ensure safety and transparency in factories. This unique Fair Trade program makes that possible.

We launched into the coconut sector in 2014 as a way to help improve the lives of small-scale coconut farmers and protect workers in coconut processing facilities. This program is also growing rapidly, with products like waters, oils, flours, and candies now on the market.

With all of the recent news about forced labor in seafood supply chains, we’re also now proud to be able to offer shoppers a way to identify fish that were caught according to rigorous social, environmental, and economic standards. The Fair Trade Fisheries standard, developed with the guidance of a multi-stakeholder advisory council, is now being implemented in small-scale fishing villages in Indonesia, Mexico, and coming soon to the Maldives.

FT: What drives you and your company to push for sustainability?

PR: I travel to farming communities all over the world, and it pains me that the people who grow the world’s food often cannot afford to eat. When people are literally struggling to survive, how can we expect them to convert to organic production, adapt to climate change, or even send their kids to school? In traditional trade models, there are very few opportunities for impoverished farmers to break that cycle. Fair Trade is unique because it utilizes the familiar building blocks of international trade while offering a way (and an incentive) for farmers, businesses, and consumers to be active participants in creating change. It’s about making farming a viable business for all.

FT: What is the biggest food related issue facing our planet right now? How is your company working to solve that problem?

PR: It can be truly overwhelming to think about all of the issues facing our planet. The challenges are so immense—climate change, conflict, forced and child labor, the list goes on.

Fair Trade’s approach is really about helping people—farmers, workers, and fishermen—build sustainable livelihoods so that they can become more resilient and more capable of addressing the challenges that come their way.

Take climate change as an example. There’s a plant disease in the coffee world called leaf rust, which is taking a major toll on coffee farms across Latin America and the Caribbean. In recent years, the disease has been devastating coffee farms with tremendous force due in large part to changing weather patterns and rising temperatures. This fungus even forced several countries in Central America to declare a state of emergency in 2013, recognizing that the most vulnerable small-scale farmers would not be able to recover from what in some areas was a total loss of production.

Combating and coping with the effects of climate change are impossible without resources. Tackling rust, one of the many ways climate change is affecting agriculture, requires the ability to replant new varietals, purchase inputs, and train entire regions of farmers. This is an area where Fair Trade has helped farming communities obtain the resources and information needed to become more resilient and stay in the game in the long term.

FT: Do you have any enlightening stories to share of collaboration between your business and other businesses or organizations that have changed your business practices?

PR: One of the most unique and powerful elements of Fair Trade is the Community Development Premium. For every Fair Trade sale, producers earn an additional amount of money that they use to address the needs of the community. At a Fair Trade coffee farm in Nicaragua, the workers got together and developed a plan to tackle a big issue in the region—hunger among the elderly. These workers voted to develop a food delivery program to help feed seniors living alone.

We’ve also seen premiums used to build roads, improve product quality, start mobile health clinics and cancer screenings, and even build a small store where families can purchase food at a low cost. What connects all of these projects is producer choice. It’s about farmers and workers collaborating to address their own needs through their own hard work.  

FT: What is something you want your customers to know about Fair Trade?

PR: We’re all connected by the food that we eat, the products we buy, and the clothes that we wear. Fair Trade is a way to remember that connection and to give everyone along the supply chain the ability to participate in a more sustainable, viable future of trade. The best part is that it’s easy. All you need to do is choose a Fair Trade banana or cup of coffee.

To find out more about the event, see the full list of speakers, and purchase tickets, please click HERE. Interested participants who cannot join can also sign up for the livestream HERE.

To join us at Food Tank's São Paulo, Brazil Summit in September 2016, please click HERE. To join us at Food Tank's Sacramento, CA Summit on September 22–23, 2016, please click HERE. To join us at Food Tank's Chicago, IL Summit on November 16–17, 2016, please click HERE

Want to become a sponsor of the Food Tank Summit? Please click HERE

Want to suggest a speaker for one of the Summits? Please click HERE

Want to watch videos from last year's Food Tank Summit? Please click HERE

Sponsors for this year's Food Tank Summit in Washington, D.C. include: Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, Chaia DC, Chipotle, Clif Bar, D.C. Government, Driscoll's, Edible DC, Elevation Burger, Fair Trade USA, Food and Environment Reporting Network, Global Environmental Politics Program of the School of International Service, Greener Media, Inter Press Service, Leafware, Niman Ranch, Organic Valley, Panera Bread, and VegFund. 

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