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90. Fair Trade Certification in the news, unfortunately

Last week, the Seattle Times published an article on Direct Trade that did not reflect particularly well on Fair Trade Certification.  Then a bad moment for Fair Trade was made worse when Sprudge cherry-picked the worst lines of the article, which had more than its share of unfortunate content.

How many dimensions does your trading model have?  Flattening Fair Trade.

Mark Barany deserves the credit he has been getting for his decision to publish the prices Kuma Coffee paid for all its Direct Trade coffees.  But the quotation in the Seattle Times piece reflects the persistent and unfortunate tendency to reduce the discussion about the developmental impact of coffee in general — and Fair Trade’s value proposition in particular — to the single issue of price.  Paying farmers a fair price was not, as he suggests, “The whole reason Fair Trade started in the first place.”

Fair Trade’s pioneers, both in the marketplace and here at origin, insist that Fair Trade emerged from efforts to build different kinds of relationships all along the coffee chain.  Today, the pioneers still refer so relentlessly to the primacy of relationships between farmers and roasters that it is impossible to mistake the language as empty sloganeering.  More importantly than what they say is the fact that relationships that emerged from those heady days of coffee and revolution in the 198os are still alive and well.  Today, the best Fair Trade organizations I know continue to see price as only one of a number of important variables as they develop new trading relationships.  In sum, the focus on price reduces a rich, multi-dimensional relationship to the tiresome two dimensions of price and quality — areas where Fair Trade does not compare favorably in the popular mind to Direct Trade.

(In fairness, it is important to note that the way Fair Trade has evolved and been promoted in the United States may be partly to blame for this reductionism.  For one, Fair Trade is no longer the exclusive domain of relationship-driven coffee, since it can be sourced remotely just as easily as any other conventionally traded coffee.   And the overwhelming focus on price is partly a response to the fact that so much of the outreach around Fair Trade Certification has emphasized the Fair Trade Certified minimum as a point of distinction in the marketplace.  This was especially true during the years immediately following the coffee crisis, when prices were low and the case for Fair Trade was strongest.  It is uninspiring to see TransFair go back to the till in this article, reminding people how good Fair Trade Certification is when the market is $0.60 instead of focusing on how it is relevant in a $1.60 market.  It feels a bit like conceding the point.)

Who speaks for whom?  Voice.

I find the sniping and competitiveness that goes on at the market end of the chain bewteen certifiers and advocates of different trading approaches to be disheartening and distant.  There are no producer voices in this article — U.S.-based certifiers and roasters are presumed to speak on behalf of “farmers” as a class of people.  I understand the practical challenges of including farmer perspectives in every coffee article.  But they seem especially important sources for an article in which U.S. market heavyweights are fighting over whose approach is better for farmers.  Somehow it feels paternalistic, like grown-ups discussing the behavior of a child who is within earshot.  (By the way, I am happy to help U.S. news outlets find farmer organization sources in Mexico and Central America, where we work with more than 7,000 farmers and more than two dozen farmer organizations under our CAFE Livelihoods project.)

I am still struggling with the reference to “us” in the article’s combative closing passage.   We work with cooperatives that are on the FLO register and sell Fair Trade Certified coffees.  They may or may not consider themselves part of that “us.”  Other organizations we work with, who may appreciate and benefit from what Fair Trade Certification does, also sell to Direct Trade roasters.  They may not necessarily consider themselves wholly Fair Trade or wholly Direct Trade or part of any “us” aligned neatly with a single certification or trading model.  These distinctions may make a world of difference in the marketplace but can be seen by a farmer as two means to the same end.  In the end, the ideas of “we” and “us” may look different to a farmer than it does from the other end of the coffee chain.


  • Jonathan Rosenthal says:

    Michael, I am so excited to have you talk a bit about one of the elephants—or perhaps Jaguars—on the table. We in the north are still a bit stuck in our post colonial thinking that as long as we are committed to the well being of the farmers, we are in the right. We forget that we can’t speak for farmers or on behalf of farmers. I stubbornly believe that until we are willing to find ways to discuss, debate, struggle and unlearn around issues of power—especially race, class, money and gender—we are limiting the change possible.

    The whole notion of being nearly invisible and working on behalf of people far away is strange to me. When and how can we put ourselves in the picture. Are we not really working to heal and satisfy ourselves as much as we are working to help farmers?

    Thanks, once again, for your writing. Perhaps you can find some colleagues—farmers and managers from farmers’ organizations—that can add to this important conversation?

    • Jonathan:

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. It is a bit of serendipity that you replied to this post, since I you are one of the pioneers I was thinking of as I wrote it!

      As for where folks in the North come into the picture…As you know, so much of the richness of trade as a vehicle for justice is precisely that it is by definition relational and connects people across great physical and cultural distances, creating possibilities for richer exchange between very different contexts. I won’t presume to know the answers to the when and how, and don’t presume to speak on behalf of the farmers we are accompanying here, but in my experience I have found it essential to continue to re-examine what I think I know about what is best for farmers and farmer organizations. And nothing has made my neat ideas about what works messier than conversations with the farmers themselves.

      I also appreciate the encouragement to broaden the perspectives that find an outlet here — farmer voices coming soon.

      Un abrazo and enjoy Fair Trade Futures.


  • Michael,
    Thanks for your article. In addition to Paul Rice, I also interviewed with the writer. We regret that the author didn’t chose to or perhaps didn’t have the room to address the different goals of Direct vs. Fair Trade. It seems to me that Direct Trade focuses on price and coffee quality. Fair Trade, however, is a comprehensive development approach that–yes, addresses market isolation–but is really focused on social inequity and poverty alleviation in farming communities. The ability to produce high-quality coffee becomes the mechanism through which farmers can earn more, have stable incomes, and invest in valuable social programs such as education, training and health care. We had a very in-depth discussion about Fair Trade as a development and empowerment program, not just a pricing scheme. Thanks for helping to reinforce this message. If your readers are interested in learning more about the social and environmental impacts of Fair Trade, they can always visit our Producer Profiles or Impact Reports on our website.

    • Stacy:

      Thanks for the comment and the reminder that journalists don’t always use the quotations you wish they would! In my experience, sometimes they don’t quote you at all — not sure which is worse! I think the point you raise is a good one that points to the kind of self-perpetuating dynamic I think has helped to take some of the nuance away from the Fair Trade message: people respond to the issue of the guaranteed minimum price, so it is the point that tends to get emphasized; because it tends to get emphasized, it often dominates peoples’ perception of the value of Fair Trade. From my perspective, it is not the most important part of the Fair Trade value proposition, although it may be the most unique. Direct relationships, market access, access to finance, technical assistance and other forms of support, and improved organizational capacity may all be more important from a developmental perspective. Unfortunately. all that is hard to get into a sound bite or a quotation that doesn’t leave the reader breathless, so it often gets left out altogether.

      The other important point I guess is that Direct Trade and other approaches are also helping to deliver some of the other valuable elements of that list, leading people to narrow the Fair Trade focus on the thing that it alone does — guarantee a solid minimum price, even in a $0.60 market. For the record, I think that is an extraordinarily valuable thing! The ability of a farm family to count on a certain income can eliminate lots of uncertainty and make planning for the future less risky. It has been a while since we have been in that kind of a market, however, and may be a while until we get back there.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment.


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