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272. The FT4All debate: It’s getting personal

Last September, Fair Trade USA issued two controversial announcements: one about its decision to withdraw from Fairtrade International, the global Fair Trade Certifier formerly known as FLO, and another launching its Fair Trade for All initiative, which rewrites the rules of Fair Trade and opens the U.S. Fair Trade market to coffee estates.

In the intervening months, the debate over FT4All has been charged.  Yesterday, it got personal: Fair Trade pioneer Equal Exchange targeted Green Mountain Coffee in its ongoing campaign against FTUSA and FT4All.  Equal’s co-presidents Rink Dickinson and Rob Everts published this open letter to GMCR CEO Larry Blanford in the Burlington Free Press, the paper of record in the Green Mountain State.

Rink and Rob give credit where credit is due.  They acknowledge Green Mountain’s leadership on Fair Trade and its status as the largest buyer of Fair Trade Certified coffee in the United States.  But they are unequivocal in restating their opposition to FTUSA’s FT4All approach, and in their call to GMCR’s leadership:

We ask you to open your eyes and fully engage the controversy raging around you.  We ask you to leave Fair Trade USA and rejoin the international certifier in which small farmers have a true seat at the table and governance power.

I understand that Green Mountain may be a strategic target for this kind of communication: it is the leading buyer of Fair Trade Certified coffee and the only coffee brand that has publicly announced its participation in FTUSA’s innovation pilots.  Still, a public letter of this nature between two CRS partners and leading advocates of Fair Trade is a painful reminder of how divided the U.S. Fair Trade marketplace is less than six months into the FT4All era.

– – – – –

In reading the Equal Exchange letter, I couldn’t help but hear the ironic echoes of earlier activist ads published by another Massachusetts-based Fair Trade roaster to challenge Green Mountain’s Fair Trade practices.  Nearly 10 years ago, Dean Cycon of Dean’s Beans published these two ads confronting Green Mountain.  Only they weren’t pushing Green Mountain to leave the FTUSA fold — they were pushing it to make a deeper commitment to FTUSA’s certification approach.


  • Chris London says:

    Regarding the mention of Dean Cycon at the end of your post, he was not pushing GMCR to make a deeper commitment to ‘FTUSA’. Back then it was still Transfair USA and was not fully on the oh so American ‘my way or the highway’ path that it is on now. But further, look at the second ad where he states “Transfair … won’t tell you the percentage…” Clearly he was taking a poke at Transfair. In those ads Dean was pushing for Fair Trade, not Transfair as such.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Fair enough. I agree with you to a point. Yes, Dean was pushing the 100%, No Middle Ground approach to Fair Trade more than FTUSA/TFUSA’s certification approach. In fact, he was also pushing FT/TFUSA with those ads in they way you suggest: to be more transparent, to be more transformational. It was always my sense that his subsequent break with FT/TFUSA reflected his frustration with what he perceived to be the certifier’s lack of transparency and its refusal to push big corporate licensees to deeper commitments, among other things.

      But the fact remains when GMCR or Starbucks ultimately did what Dean was urging them to — increase their respective commitments to Fair Trade — they did so through FT/TFUSA and its certification regime. Dean may have been pushing his particular model of high-bar Fair Trade, but in the end FT/TFUSA — as the only certification show in town — benefitted from the success of campaigns like his.


      • Chris London says:

        I guess I’m not sure what your point is. That because EE and others supported TF in the past it’s hypocritical to be against it now? But TF unilaterally changed the rules, all bets are off so to speak. As your post on Merling Preza awhile back made clear for many this change was taken as a betrayal, they didn’t have a change of heart TF did (actually I don’t think it did, it’s just that the market has grown to the point that it could do more or less what it’s wanted to do all along; but that’s a different conversation).

        I’ve tried to be a 100% FT buyer for years, now I find I have to instead go with the ‘relationship coffee’ path as I can’t trust the label anymore. But with a few exceptions I don’t trust the RC path either because too many of the companies wrapping themselves in that flag won’t actually provide any data (or worse, can’t) on what they achieve for farmers.

        I don’t necessarily disagree that FT should be applied to ‘estates’. But what TF has done has taken an ax to years of work in trust building.

        • Michael Sheridan says:


          You have evidently put more thought into your responses that I did into the original observation about Dean’s ads. I wasn’t trying to make any earth-moving point and certainly didn’t mean to suggest for a moment that anyone opposing FT4All is hypocritical. Just the opposite — Dean and the other 100% Fair Trade roasters have been nothing if not consistent in their direct trading approach.

          I just meant to say that reading Equal’s ad made me think immediately of Dean’s ads. The fact that both were issued by progressive Massachusetts-based roasters and both targeted Green Mountain made the connection stronger in my mind. The irony that the first ones were oriented to push GMCR closer to FTUSA and yesterday’s to push them away from FTUSA was not meant as a comment on Dean or Equal, but precisely as a comment on how much the system has changed over the years in Fair Trade bookended by those ads. The times they are a-changin.


  • dean cycon says:

    My ears were burning!! OK, I was calling out GM to increase its fair trade percentage in that early ad. I was also challenging Paul Newmans Own to find a roaster with more than a meager commitment to fair trade (not us, I clearly stated that we were too small but that Equal and maybe some others would be a good choice). I was immediately threatened by Paul Rice with suspension of my Transfair license for “disparaging another licensee”. What a joke! I replied that the First Amendment still guaranteed free speech in this country, and that in any event I wasn’t disparaging anybody, just calling on GM to buy more fair trade coffee. It always amuses me when corporate types believe that corporations have free speech, but those who criticize them don’t. It was the foreshadowing of Citizens United!

    My relationship with Transfair had been troubled since the beginning. I was always calling for a higher bar, and to try and make fair trade less likely to become fodder for corporate greenwashing. Paul felt otherwise. He once told me that he cared more about Starbuck’s million pounds at 1% than he cared about our 250,000 or Equals half million at 100% (so long ago!). The point was that Paul always saw fair trade as a branding exercise, not a movement. Those were his words to me. We spent a year with Equal, Coop Coffees and Oxfam trying to make Transfair more transparent and accountable. It was a formal committee with Transfair. After a year we all gave up, as it was clear that there would be no change at Transfair as long as Paul was chair. Many of us left then, searching for ways to do fair trade more …fairly. I rejoined after a few years at the urging of several farmers who wanted my voice back at the table on their behalf. I met with Transfair, they agreed to my biggest earlier demand (that they set up a roaster advisory council where our voice could be heard in the decision making process). I went to several of the meetings but it was clear that it was no more than a dog and pony show (as an ex-Wall Street lawyer – yeah, so sue me!- I know a set-up for phony public participation when I see one). So I left again, warning that Transfair was headed in a weird direction away from fair trade. I also ran around screaming like friggin’ Cassandra (google “mythology”) or Chicken Little that Transfair was going to change the rules so that the Big Boys (yes, GM and Starbucks) would be able to claim that they were going to be 100% too some day.

    Well, that day is here. My take on the new Transfair? Paul has stolen the intellectual property of FLO and the rest of us, and did this while an employee of Transfair. He should be sued for that. Of course, he would have no trouble defending against that as he now has his head and other body parts so deep in the deep pockets of said Big Boys. It is difficult to know what is really going on, as Transfair is even less transparent than it ever was. But it is obvious that Paul has rewritten the fair trade script to suit the corporate interests he so blatantly admires and whose assets he kisses.

    A telling tale? I was at the Bioneers conference last November and Dis-Honest Tea (shall I say Coca-Cola?) was handing out freebies. I saw a Transfair label on the bottle (with NO exculpatory wording below it, not even in letters that were unreadable without an electron microscope). I turned the bottle over to see maybe one FT ingredient. That’s where I learned about the “new, improved” regulations on label use under the new, improved Transfair. Of course, there was so much blowback by the movement that even the great God of Multinationals was moved to tears, and Transfair softened its stance on labeling a little. But the devil, my friends, not only wears Prada, but is always in the details. Transfair gave those naughty label makers two years to conform to the new regs. Time for another corporate lesson from the Big Boys, kiddies. Paul and his cohorts know that if you say something bold, people will forget about it and move on to the next cause. So in two years, there will be no community memory or at least not in the general public, about the changes we are talking about. So my dire prediction is that in two years Transfair will slip some other regs in that will allow all of these big licensees to do their business as usual and call it fair trade.

    In the end, all of the major corporations will be under license to Transfair, all of them will claim to be 100% fair trade, and none of them will have changed their business practices.

    A footnote. Some of you may know that I was the co-founder of Coffee Kids, the first development organization in the coffee world back in 1988. Bill Fishbein was the coffee guy, I was the development guy, as I had years of work as a lawyer and development worker in indigenous communities around the world before that. The reason I started Dean’s Beans in the first place was that I observed after several years that even though Coffee Kids was doing really good work, the companies such as GM who were dropping a few bucks of their engorged profits on us were not changing their business practices, only doing charitable contributions, sometimes actually claiming credit for the work itself. I wanted to model how a business could pay real prices, engage in the issues and dynamics in the source communities that kept them in chronic states of underdevelopment and still have the company be profitable. It was meant to show the industry that it was possible to change the dominant paradigm of corporate gluttony at the expense of these communities. Fair trade held the promise of being an important part of that equation, but the certifier never took social change seriously. And still doesn’t. Fair trade under Transfair mimicks the dynamics I saw at Coffee Kids. The price of a Transfair license is zero dollars, and there is no incentive within the fair trade system for those corporations to make any larger commitment than they choose to, largely for marketing purposes. Transfair is inviting business as usual to take over and keep Paul in the life of luxury that he has become accustomed to.

    So in summary, I have not changed my beliefs one iota about fair trade over the years. I have just seen the struggle between fair trade the movement and fair trade the branding exercise morph into a situation where the largest players get to participate without seriously changing anything they do. I acknowledge that the glass is half full for the thousands of farmers who have received benefits from GM and Starbucks large scale purchases, but as I said to Paul a million years ago, by structuring the system the way you are going, you will condemn 95% of the world’s coffee farmers never to participate in fair trade.

    He was happy with the trade off, I guess. I am not.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thanks for weighing in with the context that was missing from the post.

      As you can see, we still believe in free speech here!


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