Fair Trade — The Future of Vanilla
by Rick Brownell

Recently, vanilla has been added to the Fair Trade Certified™ portfolio of products and it has the potential to change the vanilla landscape forever.
Fair Trade initiatives typically marketed artisan crafts made by impoverished peoples in Third World countries. The most common outlets were World Shops, found in airports around the world. For decades, the growth of Fair Trade was limited by its boutique-like distribution.
Eventually, the concept of a Fair Trade label was created. Now, Fair Trade-labeled products could be sold through mainstream distribution channels, while still conveying the assurances of compliance with Fair Trade principles.
The principles of Fair Trade are somewhat complex and far-reaching. However, the cornerstone is enabling small, disadvantaged producers the ability to compete in the global market place and receive a fair price for the goods and services they produce.
A fair price reflects the true costs of sustainable production and a standard of living, which meets acceptable social and ethical norms. For example, Fair Trade certification encompasses issues such as the exploitation of women and children, providing a safe and healthy work environment and ensuring that producers will have the necessary capital to remain independent and competitive.
What it Means to Vanilla
Vanilla is in many ways a unique crop ideally suited to both the principles and practicalities of Fair Trade.
Vanilla beans are grown almost exclusively in underdeveloped nations on small, family farms. These growers traditionally have had little access to local roads and communications, let alone international markets and global consumers.
Every aspect of vanilla production is extremely labor intensive. Vines must be tended for three to four years before they produce beans. Vanilla flowers must be pollinated and harvested by hand. During the curing process, the beans are individually evaluated and handled repeatedly for several months before they are ready for export.
The time invested by the growers and curers is considerable. More significantly, there are few automated alternatives to the traditional manual process.
Unlike other Fair Trade staples such as coffee and rice, vanilla is typically consumed as a minor, if important, ingredient in another food or beverage. As such, the cost impact of Fair Trade pricing would be insignificant to the end consumer.
The market for vanilla beans is very, very small. There is no futures market to help regulate pricing and supply. Instead, growers typically respond to higher prices by growing more vanilla and respond to lower prices by growing alternative crops.
This produces dramatic swings in cost and the availability of vanilla beans. Worse, it encourages food and beverage manufacturers to formulate vanilla out of their products.
Industry-wide conversion to Fair Trade vanilla would provide affordable, consistent and stable supplies benefiting growers and consumers alike. Whether or not this is realistic remains to be seen. But, the resulting impact on the lives of tens of thousands of impoverished vanilla growers would be historic.
Rick Brownell is vice president of vanilla for New York-based Virginia Dare.