Ask the Expert: Fair Trade USA Impact Evaluator

Everything we buy has an environmental and social impact, but frequently we don’t know where products come from let alone if the impact is relatively positive or negative. A product’s impact is often considered negative due to supply chains that exploit people and the planet. Fair Trade ensures products have a positive impact, making supply chains more sustainable and making it possible for individual consumers like us to improve our own impact. But what does positive really mean? How do they do that?

Kate Williams first heard about Fair Trade while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua (home to the first Fair Trade USA certified coffee) but really got involved in supply chains helping the shoe company Nisolo build out their Impact Measurement System. Now working with Fair Trade farmers, fisherman, and factory workers around the world, Kate is the perfect person to help us learn more about Fair Trade. In the following interview, she provides insight into the impact of Fair Trade USA and how we can support sustainable supply chains.

How do you describe Fair Trade to people that might not be familiar with it?

The Fair Trade USA label you see on produce at Whole Foods or on your Patagonia garment is a verification that the produce, clothes, coffee etc. that you bought is a product of a monitored supply chain to make sure that the farmers, fisherman, factory worker were paid a fair wage, treated with respect and in turn received an extra premium to invest in a project to better their community. There is a small premium on these products, which adds up over time and volume sold, which then is sent back to the coffee co-op, for example, to invest that premium payout in a project the community deems to be most beneficial. The extra few cents you pay on that product goes a long way to helping ensure people less fortunate receive the things we take for granted on a daily basis such as clean drinking water, education, and a fair salary.

Can you tell us a little bit about why Fair Trade is important?

Fair Trade USA develops their own Standard that protects human rights by eliminating such issues as human trafficking and child labor but also protects the environment in terms of monitoring chemical and water usage. Each farm, factory, fishery is audited against this rigorous standard by a third party to ensure that they are meeting our Standard and improving year over year. We believe that there are always improvements to be made to protect those workers at the bottom of the supply chain so the standard becomes more demanding the longer the farm/factory is certified. When you buy a Fair Trade USA Certified product you can be confident that the humans that made your product, as well as the environment, were treated with respect.

The other very important social aspect of Fair Trade USA is empowerment. These individuals who pick our produce and sew our clothing are from developing nations and need all the help they can get. We don’t believe in handouts at Fair Trade USA as that just makes individuals dependent. We want to empower them with the skills and ability to make their own decisions amongst themselves on how their premium dollars should be spent. We help them form Fair Trade USA Committees and teach them how to vote democratically as well as provide training such as personal financial management so they can make healthy future decisions for their families.

Can you briefly describe how Fair Trade measures impact?

Our theory of change is rather simple: the more Fair Trade USA Products purchased, the more premium dollars are sent back to these producers to invest in education, meal programs, clean water etc. We measure not only how many premium dollars are sent back to the origin of where the product was made, but the effect this has on empowering the individual. We conduct surveys directly with the farmer, fishermen, factory worker to hear directly from them how being part of a Fair Trade USA Certified body has impacted their lives in terms of financial stability, individual empowerment, their access to basic needs and the impact on the environment. Our surveys go deep and are anonymous so that each individual feels protected and confident to say what is on their mind. These responses are used to better our model and tailor our service to better serve those producers.

Are there a few experiences you’ve had that really illustrate the impacts of Fair Trade?

Recently I visited Cote d’Ivoire where the majority of our cocoa comes from here in the U.S. At one Fair Trade Certified cocoa co-op I had the pleasure of meeting several women farmers, which is very rare since women are not empowered to manage their own land. They have to have been widowed and have no other male relatives before they can own land. Keep in mind this is a country where many men still take several wives. I was invited to visit one of the woman’s cocoa farms where she walked me through her crop and introduced me to her family. She happened to be married to another FTUSA certified farmer who was progressive enough to give her a plot of land to manage by herself. This female farmer was flourishing, confident and on her way to start other small businesses. This idea of empowerment and equality is what Fair Trade USA stands for and promotes. In our model, a women farmer’s vote towards how their premium is spent is just as important as a male farmer’s.  I believe this changes behavior and further levels the playing field for both men and women farmers in Cote d’Ivoire.

Another impactful story that I like to tell is about a coconut co-op in the Philippines that decided to invest in a feeding program for their school kids. Teachers were noticing that the young kids of coconut farmers were showing up malnourished to school and having trouble focusing in class during the offseason when money was tight. The farmers decided to use their Fair Trade Premium to invest in a meal program at the local school to make sure that all the local kids got fed throughout the year, even when money was tight.

What are some of the most common Fair Trade products (i.e., easiest way we can support Fair Trade’s efforts)?

Coffee is the most consumed Fair Trade Product. If all of us coffee drinkers in the U.S. made the choice to buy a Fair Trade cup of coffee for just one day, we would generate $2 million in premiums to send to coffee farmers. Imagine if we chose Fair Trade Coffee every day?!

Some other easy purchases are Fair Trade Produce (berries, bananas, peppers, etc.) and chocolate bars from a variety of grocery stores such as Safeway, Sprouts, and Whole Foods. Look for cleaning and cosmetic products that contain Fair Trade ingredients like coconut at Target in their Method line. Think twice about fast fashion purchases in general and lean on brands like Prana, Athleta, and Patagonia who are Fair Trade Certified. It’s worth the investment in a well-made garment sewn by an empowered factory worker. Visit our website for a shopping guide:


Thanks to Kate for her dedication to improving the impact of products! Fair Trade really makes it easy to support sustainable supply chains. Interview by L.DeMates.

For more on Fair Trade, check out their new website, watch this video that sums up the Fair Trade Difference in 5 mins:, and/or follow on Instagram for new product releases and stories straight from the producers @FairTradeCertified

Ready to commit to buying Fair Trade when you can? Sign this pledge!


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