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272. The FT4All debate: It’s getting personal

2012-05-21 Comments Off on 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.

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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.