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a cup of Fair Trade

June 29, 2012

In the 20th century there was a growing awareness that all of the products bought in the United States were not purchased ethically. Specific to coffee, farmers were not paid a fair wage and there was only one market for trade with no competition. The commodity markets were and still are volatile, creating an unsustainable model for farmers to make a living.  While searching for an alternative to this volatile market, the Fair Trade movement was born in many forms around the world. The largest form of this movement for coffee is through certification programs such as the Fairtrade Labeling Organization (FLO) and Fair Trade USA. They offer a set price for farmers to trade on that is decided in advance to be fair. The common denominator among these varied organizations is that they only work with democratic Coops in coffee producing countries.

 While well intentioned, the problems that have arisen from this model are many fold but the two main issues I personally have with this model is that most consumers will not pay more for a product on purely ethical reasons, and secondly, when the coffee prices rise the Fair Trade price is not adjusted. This  means that the market for fair trade is stagnant and the quality of the coffee is not guaranteed. If the farmers involved with Fair Trade is not getting a better price for their product, many do not continue to work with Fair Trade. Thus the quality of coffee purchased under Fair Trade suffers.

The problem with Fair Trade in general is that it is occupying a middle ground which is very difficult to do well in any incarnation. The organization provides a certification and has certain rules that must be upheld across the board. Yet in the midst of this organizational bureaucracy they are trying to work with relationship oriented, small businesses as well. The intent behind Fair Trade is good but I feel that roasters with direct trade relationships, held to a level of transparency have the best chance to impact quality coffee and quality of life.

When roasters work with farmers they know their specific needs, the price the farmer could get on the commodity market, and how to work on social needs that lead to improving coffee quality. This is a bigger role for the roaster and often more difficult than simply buying a specific certification. When done well the roaster’s benefits are higher because they have a level of knowledge about the coffee that enables them to cultivate the best coffee in the cup.

In recent months the conversation has become even more complicated due to the recent split between Fair Trade USA and FLO the international branch. The new embodiment in the United States is Fair Trade 4 All (FT4A). This organization desires to open Fair Trade to more coffee farmers, small and in estates, instead of the previous agreement to only work with farmers involved in coops. This has many implications to farmers, roasters and to the Fair Trade organization. There are some very interesting discussions going on about this topic so if you are interested check out this blog  as well as this radio show between FTUSA president Paul Rice and Fair Trade Canada Communications Director Michael Zelmer. I would love to hear your opinions on this matter. As the conversation continues I will address some of these implications.

{You can get Fair Trade coffee in Fort Worth from Avoca. Their Nicaraguan and Decaf Mexican are both certified Fair Trade.}

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2012 2:32 pm

    Christina…this is a well written high-level summary of the fair trade offering as it relates to coffee. I think the key is that FT and frankly all of the “certification” bodies lack the ability to align interests of the interested parties. There is nothing inherent in those models that gives the farmer a reason to produce a better product for the consumer to enjoy. The benefits occur when the consuming public is getting something of value, better quality and/or price, while also contributing to the success of the producer as an underlying component of a better business model. Conversely, the producer should then have the ability to earn appreciably more for his/her crop because they provided something that customers really wanted – a much better quality cup of coffee. This is the nature of true sustainability. But, without this connectivity, not much will change.

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