Organic Consumers Association

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OCA, Dr. Bronner's Take Aim At Fair-Trade Certifications With FTC Complaint

In what threatens to be a version of the organic "fraud" feud all over again, the Organic Consumers Association and Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps have asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate what they say are deceptive advertising and labeling practices among "fair-tradecertified" personal-care brands.

The groups hope an investigation will lead to prevention of "fair-washing" by firms and fair-trade-certifying organizations who "are not really committed to fair trade," according to an OCA rep.

In its complaint to the FTC, addressed to Bureau of Consumer Protection Director David Vladeck, OCA and Dr. Bronner's specifically call out fair-trade certifier Fair Trade USA , Hain Celestial Group and Avon Products for allegedly violating section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which prohibits unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts that impact commerce.

OCA/Dr. Bronner's asks FTC to prevent Fair Trade USA from allowing brands that "use as little as 2% certified fair-trade ingredients" to sport its "fair trade certified" seal on product labels and in advertising.

Fair Trade USA rep Stacy Geagan Wagner says the complaint contains "an amazing amount of misinformation" and does not recognize that Fair Trade USA has two separate fair-trade programs - one for whole products, such as coffee and chocolate, and one for ingredients, which applies to personal-care products.

The group certifies a number of personal-care ingredients as fair trade, including vanilla, honey, shea butter, cocoa butter, sugar, olive oil and tea, and firms that source those ingredients can apply for and feature a fair-trade logo on product labels.

"We believe one of the issues here is that within the fairtrade movement, there are moderates and extremists," Wagner told "The Rose Sheet" Jan. 11. Extremists "believe that the only companies that should be able to use the fairtrade term should be companies that source 100% of their products through fair trade."

She suggested that approach is not realistic, and firms can still make a difference by sourcing some of their ingredients through fair-trade channels.

"While the [fair trade] movement may have diverse voices ... we respect their voices and we believe that they should respect ours," Wagner said. "At the end of the day, we're generating significant sustainability for the developing world."

Non-profit Fair Trade USA is a member of Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO), a group of 24 organizations that sets international fair trade standards.

Avon, Hain Deceiving Consumers - Complaint

Products from Hain Celestial's Queen Helene brand and Avon's Mark brand are certified according to Fair Trade USA 's standards and promote their use of fair-trade ingredients on certain product labels.

OCA and Dr. Bronner's take issue with the companies' use of the "fair trade certified" logo while formulating with "as little as 2% certified fair-trade ingredients in products."

Furthermore, not all products in Queen Helene's Naturals line and Mark's Body Care That Cares line that boast fair-trade certifications actually contain fair-trade ingredients, according to the complaint. The parties feel the practice is deceptive to consumers.

"It's annoying to see companies buy a minor amount of an ingredient from a pre-existing [fair trade] project and not bother to invest" in developing fair-trade programs for their main ingredients, Dr. Bronner's President David Bronner told "The Rose Sheet" Jan. 12.

Dr. Bronner's has invested more than $3 million to develop fair-trade ingredients, according to the complaint. Its bar soaps contain more than 70% fair-trade certified ingredients, and its liquid soaps also have more than 70% certified fairtrade ingredients on a dry-weight basis.

Due to the labeling practices of Hain, Avon and Fair Trade USA , "it is clear that a number of consumers are being induced to buy products such as the Queen Helene or Mark body washes, bar soaps and lotions instead of Dr. Bronner's products, which are directly competitive, in the mistaken belief that the Queen Helene or Mark products are "fair-trade" product[s] in the same way and to the same extent as Dr. Bronner's products," according to the complaint to FTC.

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