A little over a month ago I was invited to a fair trade blogger fest up at Ben & Jerry’s HQ (disclosure: Ben & Jerry’s paid for my airfare and accommodations). As a native Vermonter, Ben & Jerry’s has always been one of my favorite companies and favorite products – I love the socially responsible way they go about running the business, and it doesn’t hurt that the ice cream they make is freakin’ delicious. I also love the opportunity to visit a company HQ. As a blogger it allows me to take an inside look at the way a company is run, and it usually puts you in front of high-up folks in the company who you are able to pepper with tough questions you wouldn’t normally be able to force executives to answer directly.

The latest initiative by Ben & Jerry’s, announced in February, is that the company plans to be fully fair trade by 2013. What this means is that any ingredients used by Ben & Jerry’s that can be purchased through fair trade sources (not all foods/ingredients can or need to be fair trade sourced) will be.  The company uses 121 chunks and swirls and 11 base ingredients, and they have pledged to change any vendor agreements necessary to ensure that by 2013 those ingredients will be fair trade. Across the pond they are even further ahead of the game – all Ben & Jerry’s ice cream produced in Europe will be fair trade by the end of 2011. The company has set up a page on its website in order to promote this new initiative.

I myself am a big supporter of fair trade – just slightly higher payments to farmers can make a huge difference in their lives. However, as a blogger, I have to think about the average consumer. Many consumers don’t give a hoot where the ingredients in their food come from, they are concerned primarily with taste and affordability. With this in mind, I asked some tough questions of the Ben & Jerry’s team – how much would this raise overall production costs for the company? Would this mean an increase in the cost of a pint for the average consumer? What is the net price increase that would need to be implemented for the company to maintain the same profit margins they currently have? Members of the Ben & Jerry’s PR team were emphatic that this wouldn’t result in higher prices, and the company was ok taking smaller margins on each pint sold in order to contribute to the greater good. I was a little skeptical, but this message was re-emphasized when we met THE Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, and Ben stated:

Buying cheap materials abroad to sell products at home for a high profit margin is unethical and unfair.  What may just be a few pennies to us makes huge differences abroad.  We want people to understand that you can make a decent profit and still pay decent prices to your suppliers at the same time.

Ben & Jerry themselves, although removed from the day-to-day operations of the company, still serve as symbolic figureheads with an active interest in the way the company is run, and they stated strongly their belief that the company’s shareholders would be willing to accept slightly lower profit margins in order to advance the overall fair trade goal.

What do you think So Good readers? Do you care about fair trade? Do you ever actively try and buy fair trade products? What is the maximum price difference you’ll pay in order to support fair trade products? What do you think of this decision by Ben & Jerry’s and how it might affect other companies?

Also, tune in next week for a Ben & Jerry’s fair trade giveaway, where you can win 6 months worth of free ice cream!

4 Responses

  1. Leah

    I spent a few months researching fair trade and became so convinced in the business model that I committed to buying fairtrade when ever possible and even started an online store to give others the opportunity to buy fair trade products. It seems to me that when we buy products that were not fairly traded we are actually hurting someone. There is no neutral ground – we can either hurt or help with our purchase decisions. I want to help.

  2. Brian

    Personally, I’m willing to spend more for Fair Trade if I have the available income. If I’m hurting for money, I’m going to go for the best value and skip the Fair Trade product.

    Same goes for humanely raised meats. Although I’ll usually skip the meat altogether than buy from a company I know treats its animals poorly.

  3. Vee Sweeney

    Brian brings up a good point about cost. From my experience, fair trade products do typically cost more than those that are not. Given the current state of the economy (and it looks like it is not going to improve any time soon), I do wonder if it will hurt sales? Ben and Jerry’s is already quite pricey compared to other brands (even though it is well worth it!). Then you have more and more people trying to get healthy and the media pushing healthy foods. “Junk” foods becoming more expensive as the media is cramming that they are not healthy and to not eat them might end up having a negative affect. Will I still eat it if the price goes up due to fair trade? Probably, but as Brian said, only when I can afford it.


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