The fair-trade label was created decades ago to help artisans in developing nations. Now, there are fair-trade soccer balls, fair-trade soaps and fair-trade ice pops. Next up for the movement: the American dairy industry.
The yogurt-maker Chobani is working with Fair Trade USA, a nonprofit group in Oakland, Calif., on creating a label that would signal that the milk in its products came from farms that treated their workers and cows humanely.
Chobani will pay a small premium for milk supplied by farms that agree to the Fair Trade USA vetting process, in which auditors periodically inspect the herd, interview workers and look at environmental issues like the containment of runoff.
Chobani’s fair-trade initiative — and likely marketing push — could help the company continue to stand out in an increasingly competitive yogurt market. Chobani says it believes the premium can help farmers hit by persistently low milk prices and highlight good practices in an industry that is under enormous strain and scrutiny. Environmentalists are concerned about carbon emissions from cows, critics question the health benefits of milk, and many small farmers are deep in debt and suffering from mental health issues as their livelihood is threatened.
“When did the farm become this guilty place?” Hamdi Ulukaya, Chobani’s founder and chief executive, asked in an interview about the effort. “It was a magical place. This is the backbone of this country.”
The relevance of Ulukaya’s comments was underscored in June by an undercover video of workers brutally abusing calves on a large farm that supplies milk for the Fairlife specialty brand. The video, which was filmed by an animal welfare group and quickly went viral, showed one calf being stomped in the head and others dying from heat.
Ulukaya said the fair-trade initiative, which was developed many months before the Fairlife scandal, was meant to create “comprehensive” standards for ensuring sound labor, environmental and animal welfare conditions on dairy farms.
One potential complication: Many dairy farmworkers in the United States are immigrants from Central America and a large number are believed to be in the country illegally. Ulukaya said he did not think that would make farmers in Central New York and Idaho, the two states where the yogurt company draws its milk, reluctant to open up to the fair-trade auditors.
Jeremy Brown a dairy farmer in New York’s Finger Lakes region, said he supported any effort to help consumers appreciate the effort that went into running a farm like his, which has about 2,900 cows.
Brown, who supplies milk to Chobani through a cooperative, said that he would welcome any premium but that for many farmers who faced serious financial issues, it was not likely to be enough to turn around their business.
“Every bit helps,” he said. “People are in a tough spot.”