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224. Beauty and brains – Fair Trade infographics

Last night, a grad student from the pioneering agroecology department at UC Santa Cruz turned me on to some recently published infographics on the Fair Trade system.  (Thanks, Nick.)  I am publishing a link to the graphs here because they are a pleasure to behold.  And they also help, at a time of great upheaval within the Fair Trade system, to illustrate what all of the fighting is about.


The lead author of the graphs is Dan Jaffee from Washington State University, whose book Brewing Justice has been essential reading for industry leaders, activists and consumers concerned about the welfare of the smallholder farmers behind their coffee.  But it is his co-author, Phil Howard of Michigan State, who has specialized in developing beautiful and insightful infographics to illustrate diverse facets of U.S. food systems, including: the structure of the beer and soft drink industries, production, processing and distribution of certified organic commodities, and even the spread of food-borne illnesses.

And now coffee.

These are achievements in graphic design, but they also help illustrate what all of the fighting in the Fair Trade movement over the last 10 years has been about. (Or what the genteel academics who authored the work refer to more diplomatically as “a decade of struggles within the fair trade movement over the nature of its relationship to large (often transnational) corporate firms, some of which have contributed to the dramatic growth of fair trade sales.”)

The graphic pictured above is particularly helpful in this regard, as it shows the dimensions of each company’s commitment to Fair Trade both in terms of total FT volume (breadth) and FT volume as a percentage of total volume (depth). If deep commitment is your thing, then Equal Exchange and Cooperative Coffees and the other importers/roasters with a 100% commitment to FT come off looking good. If your vision of impact is volume-driven, then you notice that Green Mountain’s 28% commitment to FT in 2010 moved more FT coffee than all the 100% companies combined. Beauty, in other words, is in the eye of the beholder, and depends an awful lot on the lens through which the beholder sees these graphs in particular, and processes of social and economic change more broadly.

Relentless promotion of both these visions by committed advocates of each explain an awful lot of what the fighting “struggles within the fair trade movement” are all about.






  • Michael says:

    A truly excellent visual representation of a number of things, including the volume vs commitment debate you refer to.

    Of course, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the missing (and often tough to measure) variable here is marginal value, meaning the extra value producers would get through Fair Trade than they would otherwise. This could be reduced to mean simply extra revenue, profit, etc. (which is more easily measured), or it could include broader considerations (risk sharing between buyer/seller, access to additional social capital, etc) that are much harder to quantify and generalize.

    Those pushing a hard line of “more is better” often (seem to) assume that value rate is fixed so, for example:

    Vol x Vm = Vt (therefore)
    2Vol x Vm = 2Vt

    In other words, twice the volume means twice the total value (or impact).
    (Vol=Volume, Vm=Marginal Value, Vt=Total (marginal) Value)

    Of course, this doesn’t take into account that, even when talking about two certified products, the marginal value could vary significantly (e.g. the difference between a company meeting the minimum requirements and those exceeding them considerably). This would also be relevant wherever volume gains are achieved by lowering minimum requirements. So where,

    Vol x Vm = Vt (becomes)
    2Vol x 1/4Vm = 1/2Vt

    In other words, twice the amount of Fair Trade with only a quarter the marginal value leaves you with half the impact you had before you started.

    On the other hand, those pushing a hard “commitment” line shouldn’t assume that greater commitment translates into higher marginal value. Frankly, not all 100% Fair Traders are cut from the same cloth, and neither are (necessarily) all large companies who appear to be dabbling for that matter.

    This is also true when companies simply compare the prices they pay to the minimum allowed within Fair Trade certification, but are trading in high quality coffees. If the prices they’re paying are no higher than what quality goes for outside of Fair Trade, then the marginal (price) value is zero.

    All this to say that value for producers is too often assumed by many of the positions within the great “volume vs commitment” debates. I suspect an honest refocus on value creation (and measurement) would be a more productive use of time.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thanks for your thoughtful comment and the encouragement to dig deeper. After some kind words for the graphs, you write:

      I suspect an honest refocus on value creation (and measurement) would be a more productive use of time.

      I have gotten similar encouragement offline from diverse stakeholders in the Fair Trade movement, and I couldn’t agree more.

      That’s why I have published some infographics of my own today based on data collected from our CAFE Livelihoods project in Mexico and Central America. This trading data begins to look at the difference that the Direct Trade variant of Fair Trade makes on a smallholder’s bottom line. Price is only one dimension of the overall value of a trading relationship, but it sure is an important one.

      Have a look, and thanks again for taking the time to craft such a thoughtful comment.


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