Is Your Grocery List Politically Correct?

Wall Street Journal


There's a New Way to save the world: grocery shopping.

In the next couple of weeks, pineapples, mangos and grapes bearing "Fair Trade Certified" stickers will start hitting scores of supermarkets nationwide, part of a broader movement to make shoppers feel good about themselves and the food they are buying. The labels mean that workers in poor countries received higher-than-usual wages and other benefits. Along with other new buzzwords such as "certified sustainable" and "responsibly traded," Fair Trade Certified food products are being embraced with surprising speed by some of the nation's biggest food marketers -- and not just the alternative natural food stores. Last fall, Dunkin' Donuts rolled out Fair Trade Certified coffee; Starbucks sells it, too.

Other mainstream companies are rolling out similar initiatives. Kraft Foods, maker of Cheez Whiz and Oreos, recently said it will buy millions of pounds of "certified sustainable" coffee. The coffee, which bears the stamp of approval from an environmental watchdog, will initially be sold to restaurants and may eventually hit grocery stores. Late last year, Procter & Gamble introduced new brands of coffees labeled "Rainforest Alliance Certified" and "Cup of Excellence." Both varieties are linked to organizations that provide coffee growers with better income.

Restaurants are also touting meat, eggs or vegetables that come from "family farmers" or "sustainable farms." Trend-setting restaurants like Acme Chophouse, a San Francisco steakhouse, and Frontera Grill in Chicago communicate on their menus and Web sites that they sell "local," "sustainable" or "family farmed" foods. The Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit group that educates chefs and consumers about alternative food production, says that usage of the term "sustainable" has surpassed the word "organic" on restaurant menus.

For years, that word, "organic," summed up everything politically correct in food. It became a catch phrase for all kinds of alternative cuisine -- everything from carrots grown in a commune, to healthy granola. But now that the term organic is strictly defined and regulated by the government, alternative food producers are looking for new ways to express the difference in their products.

Many initiatives got their start at nonprofit or specialized retailers. Amnesty International USA, the human-rights group, for example, has long sold in its catalogs only products it feels are "fairly traded" and not produced in countries it feels are unfair to workers, like China. Morally pure marketing like this is also partly an outgrowth of the growing clamor about free trade and the effects of globalization on third-world workers. The growth of the grass-roots movement, combined with the success of the Fair Trade movement in Europe -- where the market for Fair Trade Certified products is three times larger in dollar sales than it is in the U.S. -- is now persuading mainstream companies to get on board.

Procter & Gamble, for example, recently rolled out a line of three coffees called the Millstone Signature Collection, each linked to a different nonprofit organization that promotes some aspect of "sustainability." The company says the idea behind the brand, which is currently sold only online, is to "give consumers a vote" in what social issues matter to them.

The 'LOHAS' Shopper

It's all part of a move to cater to the growing niche of shoppers willing to spend more money for products that let them feel they are acting in a socially responsible fashion. There's even a name for these people, "LOHAS" consumers, which stands for "lifestyles of health and sustainability," a term coined to describe the popularity of products tied to interests such as yoga, organic food and products that espouse social consciousness. Last year about 32% of U.S. consumers qualified as LOHAS, according to the Natural Marketing Institute, a health-products consulting firm in Harleysville, Pa., meaning they were "significantly" motivated in their purchases by concern for their health and the environment. That number was up from 30% the previous year.

In the past year, sales of Fair Trade Certified products are up 46%, mainly because the products are moving into places like Dunkin' Donuts. In the past five years, Fair Trade Certified coffee has captured 4% of specialty coffee sales.

But while the plethora of socially oriented labels gives companies a chance to look like concerned corporate citizens, all the competing logos and certifications can be baffling to consumers. Unlike the terms "organic" or "low fat," which are regulated by the USDA and FDA, respectively, there is no central authority setting definitions for the new claims. Consumers Union, a consumer advocacy group, says it tracks at least 113 different designations, intended to indicate everything from friendliness to birds, to respect for indigenous populations.

Defining 'Sustainable'

Adding to the confusion: Many terms sound similar but mean very different things. "Certified Sustainable," for instance, is often used on products that have gotten a stamp of approval from the environmental group Rainforest Alliance. The word "sustainable," on the other hand, is an unofficial term that can mean pretty much anything.

"There are probably over 600 definitions of sustainable," says Jerry DeWitt, spokesman for the Sustainable Agriculture Network, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provides educational materials to farmers about alternative agricultural practices. The most widely accepted meaning is three-pronged: It indicates farming methods that are profitable for the farmer, environmentally sound and also socially responsible. Of course, those concepts are open to broad interpretation.

Fair trade is probably the most influential initiative. The term first appeared in Europe in the late 1980s on coffee, to indicate that the producers in poor countries received above-market prices.

Farm Inspections

But fair trade can be confusing because there are so many competing versions of the term. The most clearly defined is "Fair Trade Certified." It indicates that the producer has met the requirements of the Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International, which requires farm inspections to guarantee that, among other things, farmers receive a higher-than-commodity price for their products. Coffee farmers, for example, currently get $1.26 a pound for Fair Trade Certified coffee; the commodity price is about 70 cents.

Fair Trade Certified also means workers have the right to organize, that men and women received equal wages, and that no child labor was used. The label can be found on some coffee, tea, chocolate and bananas, and in the next couple of weeks, on pineapples, mangos and grapes.

Other products, however, may be labeled "fairly traded." Sometimes this simply means that the company that produced them thinks they were fair in their business dealings.

How Local Is Local?

But the same language is also sometimes used by companies that have become "Rainforest Alliance Certified" as a sort of shorthand for that. Rainforest Alliance certification means the group examined the farm or production site to confirm, among other things, that production methods meet its standards for environmental soundness. Workers also must earn at least minimum wage, though that can be quite low -- $2 a day or less -- in some poor countries. The Rainforest Alliance Certified label is on coffee, wood products like pencils, paper and construction materials, bananas, as well as on some oranges, chocolate and cut flowers.

Then there's the word "local," which has become standard language on restaurant menus to describe everything from tomatoes to beef cheeks. Now it's starting to migrate into specialty food stores. But one person's local is another person's road trip. Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., for example, a restaurant that pioneered the notion of buying locally, "has stitched together a patchwork of over sixty nearby suppliers," according to its Web site. One farm a couple hours away supplies most ingredients. Another is near San Diego -- at the other end of the state about 500 miles away.


Social justice labels suggest you can help others by shopping, but the variety of logos is baffling. A glossary of some commonly seen terms.

TERM: Fair Trade Certified

WHAT IT IS: Indicates products comply with standards set by Transfair USA and the Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International.

WHAT IT MEANS: Workers are guaranteed above commodity prices. Also indicates some environmental protections.

WHAT IT DOESN'T MEAN: Doesn't mean that products that don't have the certification are unfair to workers or farmers.

TERM: Fairly Traded

WHAT IT IS: Unofficial, uncertified term.

WHAT IT MEANS: Indicates that the company that made the products believes it was fair to the workers.

WHAT IT DOESN'T MEAN: Because any company can call their products "fairly traded, it doesn't necessarily mean anything.

TERM: Rainforest Alliance Certified

WHAT IT IS: A term licensed by Rainforest Alliance, a New York-based non-profit dedicated to protecting biodiversity.

WHAT IT MEANS: Rainforest Alliance examined the farm or production site for environmental soundness and fairness to workers.

WHAT IT DOESN'T MEAN: Doesn't guarantee that workers got more than minimum wage in their countries -- which is sometimes under $2 a day.

TERM: Certified Sustainable

WHAT IT IS: Certification licensed by various nonprofits and is often used to indicate Rainforest Alliance Certified products.

WHAT IT MEANS: Indicates that production aimed to protect the environment, treat workers well, and benefit the local community.

WHAT IT DOESN'T MEAN: Doesn't guarantee one standard set of practices, because certifying organizations can define "sustainable in different ways.

TERM: Sustainable

WHAT IT IS: Unofficial, uncertified term.

WHAT IT MEANS: Products are made in a way that is profitable, environmentally sound and beneficial for local communities.

WHAT IT DOESN'T MEAN: Doesn't guarantee anything specific.

TERM: Local

WHAT IT IS: Unofficial, uncertified term.

WHAT IT MEANS: Products were made nearby.

WHAT IT DOESN'T MEAN: Doesn't indicate any particular distance from where it is sold -- could be 15 miles away, or several states away.

TERM: Slow Food Snail

WHAT IT IS: Logo indicates restaurant has been included in the Slow Food Guide, and conforms with criteria set by Slow Food USA, a group dedicated to traditional food practices.

WHAT IT MEANS: Can mean one or a combination of three things: the restaurant buys locally, uses quality ingredients or cooks traditionally.

WHAT IT DOESN'T MEAN: Doesn't guarantee any particular benefits for restaurant employees.