Why Fair Trade May Be Unfair to Shoppers Credit: Fair Trade Image via Shutterstock

Holiday shoppers beware: Products labeled as being socially responsible are not always what they appear. In fact, often companies purposely mislead consumers about their products, one consumer expert says.

Many companies recognize consumers’ increasing desire to by socially conscious products and are using it to their benefit, said Keith Brown, a sociologist at Saint Joseph's University.

"Retailers are doing things like creating more conspicuous labels that allow consumers to show off their status as socially conscious," said Brown, who is the author of "Buying Into Fair Trade: Culture, Morality and Consumption" (NYU Press, March 2013). “It is important for consumers to remember that advertisers’ claims of sustainability do not always align with their actual practices." 

Brown warns consumers to be extra vigilant this holiday season, particularly since companies are looking to maximize sales around the holidays.   

"I think the spirit of the holidays encourages shoppers to think more critically about a lot of their gifts," Brown said. "Many are turning to socially responsible products that are produced in sustainable ways or that have economic, social and environmental benefits for producers. In this respect, it’s a double gift."

One way for consumers to ensure they are not getting fooled by products and companies is to look for certifications and awards on products they buy.

"Third-party certifications such as fair trade, organic and rainforest alliance provide some baseline assurances that companies are meeting their claims," said Brown.

Consumers, however, can be particularly puzzling when it comes to their purchases, which can be challenging for retailers looking to reach them. 

"Even responsible shoppers often buy products that do not align with their values," Brown said. "Some consumers willfully ignore where many of their products are coming from. Others rationalize by, say, shopping at Target as opposed to Walmart, when really there's not a vast difference in things like benefits and pay of entry-level workers, for instance."

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