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221. The New York Times frames the FT4All debate

When FTUSA decided a few months ago to fundamentally rewrite the rules of Fair Trade for the U.S. market, the news hit the Fair Trade fold with all the force of an earthquake.  The aftershocks have been making themselves felt for weeks: position statements by smallholder farmer networks, governance shake-ups at competing certifiers, ranging debates among coffee chain actors, defiant screeds lenthgy expositions from Fair Trade pioneers, etc.

Through it all, there was a notable silence from the industry press and mainstream media.  If it weren’t for a few lonely coffee bloggers and the occasional newswire story, you might think it never happened.  That changed today, when The New York Times published a profile of a movement at a crossroads.

As has so often been the case since the paper was established way back before the Civil War, the NYT take on the issue is likely to be an influential one, if not definitive.  So if you haven’t read up on the debate yet, best to start here.

The article frames the debate rather starkly.  It quotes two of our U.S. partners who are opposed to FTUSA’s plans to expand eligibility for participation in the U.S. Fair Trade coffee market: Equal Exchange (“They’ve lost their integrity”) and Dean’s Beans (“Fair Trade USA has changed the rules of the game”).

It also cites two of our overseas programming allies who have remained open to the changes underway in the Fair Trade system., Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (“Fair Trade USA’s vision presents new opportunities”) and Starbucks.

It doesn’t suggest there is too much middle ground bewteen these two positions, or much opportunity in the current debate beyond perhaps “understanding what is in the can” of worms it has opened.

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The article also makes a confusing reference to CRS, warning of a “logo overload” in Fair Trade markets that would presumably include “labels from smaller programs, like one run by Catholic Relief Services.”

I sure wish the author had contacted my colleagues who run our Fair Trade Program in the United States before running the article.  They would have explained that although our CRS Fair Trade logo does look like a certification stamp, it is nothing of the sort.  I suspect they will issue a statement of clarification in the coming days that I will publish here.


  • Peter Buck says:

    Thanks for this summary, Michael. I’m a little concerned that you would characterize Rink Dickinson’s October 22 speech at the Northeast Ohio Fair Trade Network as a “defiant screed”. I would characterize the speech as a thoughtful exposition of the difference between, the original Fair Trade commitment to capacity building, market access for small farmers and a truly alternative vision of trade, versus treating Fair Trade as a niche within the existing market system.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      You make it sound like “defiant screed” is a bad thing!

      The “defiant” was a reference to the manifest passion of a Fair Trade pioneer defending his vision and life’s work against what he perceives to be a challenge to its integrity. I meant no insult there, to be sure.

      As for “screed,” I was thinking along the lines of version 1a of the Webster’s definitionlengthy discourse — while it seems you took the reference more in the spirit of version 1c — a ranting piece of writing.

      I did not mean any slight by the careless word choice. I think you know how much I like and respect everyone at Equal Exchange, and honor the enormous contributions you all have made to the sustainability of the coffee industry with your revolutionary work. And I agree with your characterization of Rink’s speech in Ohio, as well as his more recent statements to the NYT and NPR, as “thoughtful expositions.”

      So…thanks for keeping me honest, Peter. Point well taken. And language stricken.

      Un abrazo,


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