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Paul Rice
“People are hungry for ways to make a difference in the world.”

Paul Rice is a pioneer, innovator, and self-described "hell-raiser," just as at home with Nicaraguan coffee farmers as he is running his fast-paced trade certification business in Northern California. Rice is the President and CEO of Fair Trade USA, which is responsible for the fair trade label shoppers see on products in grocery stores around the nation. Rice's company certifies 1.4 million farmers in 60 countries across 30 different product categories.

Fair Trade USA is currently the leading third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the United States. The company audits and certifies transactions between US companies and their international suppliers. This guarantees that the farmers and workers producing Fair Trade Certified goods are paid fair prices, work in safe conditions, and farm using sustainable methods. 

As a young man, Rice went to Nicaragua to work with farmers intending only to stay for a year, but wound up staying for eleven. "I organized Nicaragua's first fair trade coffee co-op." At that time Fair trade was still positioned as "buy this coffee or buy this banana because it helps poor people." When US consumers pushed back on quality, Rice realized he needed to push for change that could transform the fair trade business. He encouraged farmers to develop better processing infrastructure and grow a more competitive product. "Now" he says, "the product is even more fair trade because consumers are getting the feel-good benefit knowing that they help people with their purchase, but also getting this delightfully delicious product that holds its own."

Rice's challenges introducing fair trade to the US market led him to an epiphany about the role of consumers in change-making: Fair Trade USA is as much about empowering us as consumers as it is farmers. "We're perhaps somewhat different than many of the other sustainability labels out there; we very much believe we have to work in both worlds, not just in the producer world," he says. The trick is reaching consumers "in places where they're comfortable and surrounded by people they trust."

"Now 70 million Americans can identify our label and explain what it means," says Rice, who despite his enormous success remains relentless about improving his business model, as well as the quality and impact of his work.