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90. Fair Trade Certification in the news, unfortunately

2010-09-07 Comments Off on 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.