Banana marketers see Fair Trade not only as a useful marketing tool.

They say it’s one of the most important sustainability issues in produce and that it’s the right thing to do.

Fair Trade and successful banana marketing efforts work hand in hand, said Hannah Freeman, director of produce and floral business development for Oakland, Calif.-based Fair Trade USA — formerly TransFair USA.

“Fair Trade certification supports a strong banana market by aligning the interests of consumers, retailers, marketers and growers,” said Freeman, whose nonprofit organization is the only third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the U.S.

“Fair Trade Certified ensures a fair and stable price back to the grower, and many consumers are willing to pay more for Fair Trade Certified bananas. By promoting Fair Trade, retailers have actually been able to get a lift in sales without dropping the price at all, and in some cases even charging a bit more. With the message that part of the funds go back to farming communities, consumers step up and support Fair Trade bananas in a big way.”

Fair Trade, a sustainability initiative whose goal focuses on increased wages for schools and improvements in worker communities, such as schools and health care facilities, is perhaps best known in coffee production, but it has gained some momentum in produce, according to Fair Trade USA.

Fair Trade’s slice of the banana business is increasing, Freeman said.

“From 2008 to 2009, imports of Fair Trade bananas increased 98% and returned $1.2 million in monies for community investment back to the farmers and workers in 2009 alone,” she said.

Recent research indicates that consumer awareness of Fair Trade programs also is on the rise, said Freeman, who cited a 2010 Globescan study that found 34% of Americans are aware of Fair Trade.

“Those who are aware are loyal — once they become aware, eight in 10 will buy,” Freeman said.

TransFair USA works to raise consumer awareness of Fair Trade at the store level, Freeman noted.

“Point-of-sale materials, mass media and social media all build awareness around Fair Trade and drive sales,” she said.

Fair Trade and organics often go hand-in-hand, said Simcha Weinstein, marketing director for Albert’s Organics, Bridgeport, N.J.

“We have had excellent success with Fair Trade bananas,” Weinstein said. “A big part of the reason is that we have actively marketed them to our customers, as well as provide merchandising and informational tools to our retail customers that they can use to help educate their shoppers about the benefits of Fair Trade products.

In addition to high-quality fruit, Fair Trade provides consumers with knowledge that their produce dollars are helping poor communities in banana-growing regions, Weinstein said.

Banana suppliers and retailers say Fair Trade works for them, too.

“That’s actually been a great deal for us,” said Dave Hahn, buyer for Ephrata, Pa.-based Four Seasons Produce Inc. “Our Fair Trade Organic program has grown significantly for us. In a year and a half, they’ve basically gone from basically half a container to two containers a week.”

The bigger East Coast markets, such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington purchase plenty of Fair Trade bananas, Hahn said.

“It’s more the natural food stores and other wholesalers who service organics that don’t have maybe ripening rooms,” he said.

Marion Tabard, marketing director with Miami-based Turbana Corp., said Fair Trade bananas have seen tremendous growth in the last three or four years in certain end markets.

“Turbana has had success servicing a variety of clientele, each representing different customer profiles — colleges and universities, high-end retailers, wholesale club stores,” Tabard said. “The best markets are where consumers look for socially responsible products and are more educated about the purpose of Fair Trade.”

Fair Trade products do come with a price premium of, perhaps 20-30 cents a pound over conventionally produced counterparts, according to retailers.

“I guess maybe a dollar and a half a box that goes back to the grower to help support schools, hospitals and so forth,” he said. “It’s definitely a niche market because the average consumer pays 99 cents a pound compared to 66 for conventional. It’s maybe a dollar a pound for Fair Trade, with organic in the middle.”

Four Seasons’ organic program has grown to about 40% of the company’s business, and Fair Trade sales have been a driver, said Ray Taglialatela, retail services manager for Four Seasons.