I had a long conversation last week with a specialty coffee luminary that ended in a surprising statement about how little the industry really understands about its impact at origin after all these years.
We talked about the state of sustainability in the coffee industry in general, and the current controversy in the Fair Trade marketplace in particular. I shared with him one of my most fervent New Year’s wishes: that CRS could be part of a system-wide impact assessment of all the variants of Fair Trade in coffee. To see which ones are really working for smallholder farmers and other marginalized actors in the coffee chain. And to bring some independent, results-based evidence to all the ideological debates about what kind of FT delivers the most value for farmers. I further suggested that we might include other trading models in the assessment, including the ascendant Direct Trade model and all its variants. I told him I thought the widely held belief that improvements in coffee quality lead to improvements in quality of life was largely untested. And I confessed that while we have invested in our projects to support improvements in coffee quality, we have not comprehensively calculated the returns to smallholder farmers on different kinds of investments at origin.
I was not surprised by his enthusiasm for the idea. I was surprised by his suggestion that after a generation of pathbreaking work on sustainability in specialty coffee, this kind of comprehensive assessment using uniform indicators still has not been done. “We so desperately need this kind of baseline,” he concluded.
The FT4All initiative has only re-energized and complicated a long-standing debate about which kind of Fair Trade is the fairest of them all: smallholder coops, estates, unorganized smallholders, certified, non-certified, direct, indirect, indie roaster, corporate, etc. And this is just within the Fair Trade movement. When you zoom out to see the industry as a whole, the picture gets significantly more complex.
Coffee companies have been arguing for years that their version of the coffee trade is (check all that apply): fairer, greener, cleaner, bird-friendlier, farmer-friendlier, direct-er, transparent-er, etc. In my experience, the companies that make these arguments are mostly true believers in the brands of trade they are promoting. They have seen evidence of positive impact on their trading partners during visits to source. But they are generally arguing based on ideology and personal experience, not rigorous comparative data. And, let’s face it, there is no small amount of commercial interest involved. The differentiation of a company’s brand based on its trading model is a source of competitive advantage in a marketplace that is increasingly concerned about traceability and sustainability. So it may be good for business to pioneer a new and different approach to trade. But is it necessarily good for farmers?
To answer that question in a way that is credible and comprehensive would require a system-wide impact study that applies a single set of evaluation criteria to all the different approaches to the coffee trade. It would also require industry leaders to put farmers first, opening themselves to independent evaluation of the impact of their businesses on smallholder farmers. It may be too much to hope for. But without it, the evidence of impact that we gather will continue to be fragmentary and the way we engage smallholder farmers who look to the coffee trade to elevate their status will be driven more by guesswork, ideology and commercial interest than the result of rigorous inquiry.