The Bottom line: Simple Comparative Analysis

Bottom Line:

Fair for Life certification contains some very positive elements that can serve as a model for other programs and has closed some of the troubling loopholes for labor protections that exist in some other fair trade programs.  However, some deficiencies and concerns still exist.

Associated Organizations: International Marketecology Organization (IMO) is the certification body and Bio-Foundation is the standard holder.   Both are based in Switzerland.

Program Claim(s) in the program’s own language:  The aim of the Fair for Life Social & FairTrade Programme is to ensure fair and positive relations between producers and their cooperatives or contracting companies, between workers and their employer, between seller and buyers on the world market while at the same time ensuring performance of standards.  Fair for Life Social and Fair Trade certification includes all Social Responsibility standards with fair working conditions, environmental performance and community relations, but focuses additionally on fair trade relationships, fair prices and direct support of marginalized groups.  Fair for Life Fair Trade means long-term and trusting cooperation between partners, transparent price setting negotiations and prices that allow for social development of the concerned communities.

Web link to program description/label/claim:   

Summary of DFTA findings:  

It should be noted that IMO is undergoing both a standards revision as well as changes to its internal structure throughout 2013.  The DFTA may revisit these findings once permanent decisions in these areas have been made.

Fair for Life certification is implemented by IMO, which is described as a “department” of the Bio-Foundation based in Switzerland.  The Bio Foundation’s board of directors is the ultimate decision-making body on the FFL program and standards.  Overall the governance structure is not as transparent as in some other programs.  In 2013 FFL formed a Stakeholder Advisory Committee, which although advisory not decision-making, has strengthened and formalized stakeholder participation in the program.  In the future FFL may add other certification bodies besides IMO. 

Overall Fair for Life is a strong program that has made some significant improvements over more established fair trade programs by closing some of the loopholes in those programs.  FFL has a strong approach to Fair Pricing that has kept in place the more traditional Fair Trade framework of Minimum Price, Fair Price, and Premium, but has strengthened it and emphasized fair negotiations as a key component. FFL also has an extensive approach to full supply chain coverage.  FFL clearly defines "smallholder" and explicitly lists smallholders as a marginalized group under the program.  FFL also posts not only certified but also suspended operations on its website.

In the area of labor, FFL has an overall comprehensive approach to the issue within its standards.  Significantly, FFL has removed the exemption for the Right to Freedom of Association for workers on small producer farms that exists in FairTrade for smallholders.  In other words, all fundamental workers’ basic rights are protected without exception by FFL's standards and control points – this is a significant improvement over other fair trade programs.  (See below for a discussion on the Theo Chocolate controversy.) Additionally, FFL does a better job than some of the other large international programs at explicitly recognizing casual (i.e. temporary and seasonal) workers as beneficiaries of the program and making sure the operations in which they work get inspected.

However FFL has in place some exemptions of their own: for farms that belong to a producer group, only  plantation[s] with a substantial number of workers (15 permanent workers or more than 40 workers for more than 2 months per year) need to meet all the Hired Labour standards and be inspected according to the complete Fair for Life hired labour standards.  Otherwise working conditions are verified to a much shorter list of requirements.  This includes exemptions or lower thresholds for certain wage as well as health and safety provisions.   On the one hand this could be viewed as a benefit to small size producers; IMO has explained to DFTA that in their opinion small-scale producers in the global South cannot be held to the same standard as employers in the North or large-scale plantations.  On the other hand it could be viewed as a loophole in labor protections. 

It should also be noted that both IMO has a means by which fair employers and companies can be recognized, without necessarily being fair trade in the traditional sense of covering fair pricing and transactions along the supply chain.  IMO offers For Life certification to socially responsible employers, who must comply with the hired labor standards, as well as additional environmental and community criteria.  In the case of a producer group, certification would also ensure a democratic governance structure. Labeling and traceability rules are stringent.

FFL’s environmental approaches are also solid.  While not requiring organic certification, production of GMO crops is prohibited, and producers need to either have an independent certification, such as organic, GOTS, FSC, Rainforest Alliance, GLOBALGAP, AquaGAP, Utz Certified)… “OR fulfill the Fair for Life Integrated Production Standards (Module 9) which deal with responsible handling of agrichemicals and other basic aspects of good production practices.”  One area for improvement is that some occupational health and safety requirements are lower for small-scale farm employers, but basic safety measures must be in place.

FFL follows internationally accepted protocols such as ISEAL for standard setting and program implementation.  The public can easily find on the IMO/FFL websites information pertaining to the standards, comments received and IMO’s responses, the names of all commenters, as well as certified operations and those whose certification has been revoked.  At the same time, there is not a lot of information available on the governance structure of the organization.  The Bio-Foundation, which IMO currently belongs to, lacks widespread stakeholder representation on its board.  (IMO is in the process of separating from Bio-Foundation, and DFTA has been informed that this separation will be completed by the end of the year, but information is not yet available on its future structure.)    IMO clearly reaches out to stakeholders; as part of this evaluation IMO provided the DFTA with a list of stakeholders consulted during its 2013 standards revision process, and it is fairly diversified.  The indigenous sector has participated but appears to be minimal.   IMO has also created more recently a Stakeholder Advisory Committee and has provided some information on its membership to the DFTA.  Ideally the DFTA believes such information should be available to the public but for now, at least, it is not.  The intent is that the committee different sectors including handlers, producers, and workers.  From the information provided to us by IMO (August 2013) it does not appear that there are labor representatives serving on the committee.

One of the concerns that the DFTA has regarding Fair for Life at this time, in addition to some of the exemptions referred to above, is based on the scoring system utilized by FFL that is rather complex.  FFL has standards which by and large meet DFTA criteria, but the standards are more of a general framework, whereas the control points are the language that operations are assessed against.  The Control Points overall are comprehensive, but while some are minimally required from the beginning, others are required in specific timeframes (usually 1-3 years), and still others are not strictly required at all.   For these the operation must meet a certain numerical threshold in each area of the standards reflecting overall compliance; i.e. a higher score for one control point can mitigate a lower score for another.  The approach is overall rigorous in the sense that there is strong incentive to comply with the vast majority of control points and IMO also requires continual improvement.  At the same time, this system would potentially allow certain provisions that the DFTA considers vital to not be implemented.

More information on the Theo Chocolate Controversy:

Going a step further than the more typical and established Fair Trade programs, FFL requires that the working conditions further up the supply chain also be certified for fair labor practices – a strong point of the program that the DFTA commends.   However, there has been an ongoing dispute regarding one of the U.S.-based companies certified under Fair for Life: the Theo Chocolate Company based in Seattle WA.

The International Labor Rights Forum contends that workers at Theo Chocolate had their rights violated as they considered joining Teamsters Local 117.  Both the union and ILRF submitted complaints to FFL which initiated further auditing of the company by IMO.   ILRF contends the additional auditing was inadequate, kept confidential which severely limits is usefulness, and that IMO secondarily made changes to its program that weakened some workers’ rights provisions.  In February  2013 IRLF issued a detailed report which is available here:

IMO / FFL claims to have thoroughly investigated all the allegations and considers ILRF’s findings to be biased and unjustified.  IMO issued a response to the ILRF report, also in February 2013, detailing the steps taken by IMO to conduct further audits and confidential worker interviews  and have not found the level of violations or abuses that ILRF alleges.  IMO also contends that ILRF has misunderstood or taken some programmatic language out of context to bolster their argument.  IMO has also stated that it has considered the ILRF’s concerns in its 2013 standard revision and as an outcome has strengthened the worker and public complaints and grievance procedures.

IMO’s full response is available here:

The Fair World Project also has a balanced summary here:

The DFTA has not taken an official stance on the controversy.  Both IMO and the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a workers’ rights coalition to which the ILRF belongs, are members of the DFTA.  The DFTA commends IMO for engaging and addressing the issue not only as it relates to the specific situation at Theo, but also as it may reveal improvements that can be made in the overall program.  The DFTA continues to monitor the situation and hopes that the right lessons can be learned from the dispute, and that the outcome can be a strengthening of both standards and implementation and auditing procedures regarding workers’ Right to Freedom of Association within not only Fair for Life but fair trade and social justice labeling in general.  The DFTA believes that the movement is best strengthened by deepening stakeholder involvement and accountability to stakeholders, especially the most marginalized such as workers, and encourages individuals to read through the source materials listed above to learn more about the situation and to draw their own conclusions as to whether or not the concerns have been adequately addressed.


Key to Chart
The program is exemplary and meets the DFTA's criteria expectations. The program has some innovative approaches to this issue that may serve as a model.
The program appears to have a comprehensive approach to this issue in general alignment with DFTA criteria. There are some concerns or issues to highlight regarding the program's approach to this issue.
The program addresses this issue and may meet some of the criteria, but significant concerns, questions, or shortcomings compromise the approach. There is inadequate information or outstanding questions preventing a reliable assessment of the program's approach to this issue.
The program either does not address the issue at all, or clearly fails to address it in a manner consistent with DFTA criteria. Not applicable / not addressed by program
Summary Indicator
1. Supports small scale and/or family farms
2. Ensures decent working conditions for farm and food workers
3. Supports long-term, direct, and fair trading relationships
4. Adequately restricts materials and practices that are harmful to people and the environment
5. The program is implemented well and has thorough monitoring in place

For a print version of this summary, please click here.