Fair Trade Vanilla: Challenges and Promise

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“It’s very labor-intensive,” says Brownell. “You’re looking to produce it in places where labor costs are very, very low.” No wonder, then, that so much vanilla comes from places such as India and Madagascar.

Fair Trade Vanilla in Flavor Applications

Vanilla is unique among most fair trade staples such as coffee, rice and bananas in that it is not used by the consumer as-is. For commodities such as coffee, the mark-up on store shelves is readily apparent to the consumer, which can make fair trade products a tougher sell compared to their conventional counterparts. “With vanilla,” says Brownell, “because it is primarily used as a component in something else, the cost impact of the vanilla itself is quite small compared to the total cost of [the finished food or beverage]. You might sell a pint of ice cream for $2.79 (for example), and if you switched from conventional vanilla extract to fair trade it might increase your cost by a nickel. Even though the cost of the vanilla extract itself might be double when it’s fair trade certified, in the food or beverage application it’s not very noticeable to the consumer. They get the satisfaction of buying something that’s fair trade certified and doing all the good that fair trade represents, and they’re really not paying much for it.” The distinction is important, he says, “Because the vast majority of vanilla that’s consumed in the world is not bought by the consumer. It goes into the food and beverage. The home use market is probably in the neighborhood of 10–15%.

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