The Blog

view all

277. CRS is getting involved in an FT4All pilot. Here’s why.

CRS is getting involved in a Fair Trade for All pilot project with independent smallholder farmers in Nariño, Colombia.  Here’s why.

We see three opportunities in our involvement:

INFLUENCING the system.

We believe we are uniquely positioned to independently document the impacts of FT4All’s pilots and influence the evolution of the Fair Trade model.

Perhaps the most important reason for engaging with this pilot process is the opportunity it gives us to document its impact on Fair Trade stakeholder groups at origin and influence the evolution of the Fair Trade model.

Both FTUSA’s faith that FT4All’s rising tide that lifts all boats, on the one hand, and the conviction among its opponents that it will undermine the well-being of coffee cooperatives, on the other, are beliefs rooted in ideas.  We believe that decisions on the future evolution of the Fair Trade system should be driven by results-based evidence.  And we believe that we are positioned to lead an effort to generate that evidence.  We will be working over the coming months to develop plans for an independent, transparent, system-wide impact assessment.  We plan to issue an open invitation to coffee producers, exporters, importers, roasters and activists to collaborate with us in the design and implementation of the study, whose results will be make publicly available to support industry actors and consumers in the decisions they make related to certification.

IMPACTING farmers.

We believe that the FT4All pilot can help us increase the impact of our Borderlands Coffee Project in Nariño.

Since our earliest outreach to smallholder coffee farmers in Nariño, two things have stood out.  The first is the absence of strong, independent smallholder cooperatives like the ones we have partnered with in our coffee work in Central America over the past decade.  Nariño is home to more than 30,000 coffee growers, but only one Fair Trade Certified cooperative with fewer than 300 members.  The second is how consistently farmers tell us they want our help in expanding the market options available to them.  We see in Fair Trade USA’s independent smallholder pilots already underway in Nariño an opportunity to simultaneously address both of these issues.

IMPROVING our performance.

We believe that the FT4All pilot process may help us better serve smallholder farmers in places where cooperatives fail to thrive.

CRS works with hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers in dozens of countries around the world.  Relatively few of them belong to cooperatives.  Even fewer are lucky enough to be participating in the Fair Trade market.  In most cases, we find ourselves fostering grassroots organizational processes to help large numbers of smallholder farmers access competitive markets.  There has not historically been a lot of interest from other supply chain actors in joining us in these efforts.  FT4All’s independent smallholder pilots address this development challenge with a unique “value proposition” that combines a guide for organization in the field with connections and incentives in the marketplace.

FT4All inverts the traditional incentive structure for organization.  Rather than offering Fair Trade premiums as the reward for years of effort organizing cooperatives, FT4All offers market access and FT premiums from day one, and a road map for a six-year process of organizational development for farmers who have not been well-served by coops.  We believe this approach may contribute to innovations that allow us to better serve smallholder farmers where there is no cooperative.

– – – – –

We acknowledge that FTUSA’s FT4All has been the source of considerable controversy.  We have expressed our disappointment with the process by which FT4All came to be.  And we are deeply concerned about the certification of estates, which forces cooperatives to compete against the plantation model from which Fair Trade was designed to protect smallholders the first place.

IMPLICATIONS for our relationships.

We see our support for the FT4All pilot process in Nariño as a complement to our ongoing collaboration with fully committed Fair Trade Organizations.

Many of our partners and allies, both in the coffeelands and the United States, are fully committed Fair Trade Organizations that have opposed FTUSA’s withdrawal from FLO and FT4All’s inclusion of new stakeholder groups.  We respect their position on the changes in the Fair Trade system.  We honor both their commitment to the cooperative-only vision of Fair Trade coffee and their contributions to improve smallholder livelihoods in the coffeelands.  We continue to partner with and actively support both Fair Trade Certified cooperatives in the coffeelands and fully committed Fair Trade roasters in the United States.  We hope and trust that our involvement in the FT4All pilot in Colombia will not be an obstacle to continued collaboration with these valued partners, both in the field and the marketplace, to advance in our common pursuit of more a more just and sustainable trading system.









  • Phyllis Robinson says:


    I have deep respect for you and the work that CRS has done at source with small coffee farmers. I also appreciate the difficult spot that you find yourselves in as you try to carry out your development mission, commitment to the poor, and interest in doing this work through the Fair Trade system.

    Nevertheless, I am disappointed with the position that CRS has taken vis-à-vis FT4All:

    1) “We have expressed our disappointment with the process by which FT4All came to be. And we are deeply concerned about the certification of estates, which forces cooperatives to compete against the plantation model from which Fair Trade was designed to protect smallholders in the first place.”

    Michael, I don’t know how it’s possible for CRS to express disappointment in the process, deep concern over one major component of the FT4All initiative, and then support “progress” in a third element of their initiative, that of working with individual, organized farmers.

    Regarding process: This is not a minor disagreement where one can shake one’s head over “poor process” and then move on with the more “important business” of getting one’s work accomplished. As we said in our ad to GMCR, there is a controversy raging around FT4All. At stake, we believe, is the Fair Trade system itself and the future of small, independent stakeholders. The authors of the Fair Trade system, not least among them, the small stakeholders, believe that their “intellectual property” has been stolen out from under them; sadly, a case of history repeating itself.

    Regarding plantations and individual farmers: This initiative MUST be looked at in its entirety. It comes bundled in one package: process, governance, plantations, and individual farmers. One cannot separate the process FT USA has used from the practices it is unilaterally forcing the Fair Trade community to accept. And to oppose what they are doing with plantations, out of concern for its impact on small farmer co-ops, while supporting their efforts with individual farmers, when the whole package has been opposed by the Fair Trade community also makes little sense. The pieces cannot be taken out of context.

    2) “Perhaps the most important reason for engaging with this pilot process is the opportunity it gives us to document its impact on Fair Trade stakeholder groups at origin and influence the evolution of the Fair Trade model.”

    • Despite your assurances to the contrary, it is hard to imagine that CRS can both author a neutral impact study and at the same time be enthused about the potential that FT4All’s new initiative will have in helping CRS in their work with unorganized farmers. I don’t mean to be cynical, but I think we all have experiences with impact studies.

    • Much more importantly is the question below:

    Whose decision is it to evolve the Fair Trade model so that it includes plantations or individual, unorganized farmers when the model was created by and for independent small farmer organizations? Who gets to make this decision? I think the authors of Fair Trade – the small producers and those in the North that support their efforts to organize and change the balance of power – have stated that this is not the evolution that they want, not even a “kinder, gentler,” evolution than the one FTUSA has in mind.

    The independent smallholder organizations by whom and for whom Fair Trade was created have not asked for the model to be evolved in this way. We should ask them what kind of evolution they would like to see. I think they have actually already told us. In fact, I think they’ve been telling us since Fair Trade was created and they keep on telling us. But others seem to think they know better. I think they helped create Fair Trade exactly out of a desire to see something evolve for organized small holder producers.

    From what I know, I’m going to guess there are changes and improvements they would certainly like to see and would be grateful if their allies in the North could work with them to deliver: for more co-ops to have access to the Fair Trade market; for more co-ops in the Fair Trade system to sell greater shares of their coffee at Fair Trade terms; for more training and technical assistance to improve quality, understand the market, negotiate contracts, increase their prices; more support to protect their environmental resources and mitigate against the impacts of climate change; more support for capacity-building, development and food sovereignty projects initiated by the co-ops.

    For years, we have all talked about the need for Fair Trade to do more for small farmer co-ops. We have also talked about how far we have to go to really make “All trade fair”. We have stated goals of working to change unfair trade and agriculture policies that favor agri-business and are threatening to destroy small farmers everywhere – have we finished that work already? What about deepening the ties between those in the North and South so that truer understanding, stronger relationships, and deeper social change can occur?

    In short, please be careful when deciding on behalf of an entire movement, how to evolve fair trade and who it is that gets to make that decision.

    3) We believe that the FT4All pilot process may help us better serve smallholder farmers in places where cooperatives fail to thrive.
    The Fair Trade system has always had democratically-organized producers at the heart of its model. And the reason has been straightforward. Systemic change happens through collective organization.

    This in no way negates the development needs or rights of individuals who choose, for whatever host of reasons, not to organize themselves or to “let themselves” be organized by religious, political, corporate, governmental, or non-governmental actors. CRS and other organizations should be respected for their interest and efforts to work with marginalized producers and communities. I think however, that there are many ways to work with poor people and not every strategy needs to be called Fair Trade, especially when the organized producers that have built the system and fought so hard to defend it and are only now beginning to reap the benefits of more than 25 years of hard work, have asked us to continue supporting the concept as it was originally designed.


    Phyllis Robinson
    Education and Campaigns Manager
    Equal Exchange

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thank you for your kind words about our work with smallholder farmers at origin.

      Thank you also for your detailed comment here.

      I think it is important to note that CRS did not cause the current split in the Fair Trade Certification system. Or expand eligibility in the U.S. Fair Trade marketplace to include estates and independent smallholder farmers. Or decide on behalf of the entire movement how to evolve Fair Trade. Fair Trade USA did those things.

      For CRS, as for Equal Exchange and every other stakeholder in the Fair Trade ecosystem, the challenge has been to react to Fair Trade USA’s game-changing decisions in a way that is true to our mission and vision. For Equal Exchange, the truest approach has been frontal opposition to FTUSA and FT4All. After careful consideration, we have decided that for CRS, constructive engagement with the FT4All process in Colombia is a better approach than sitting it out or opposing it head-on. In this decision, as in so many of the decisions we make, our on-the-ground relationships in Colombia weighed heavily.

      In the communities where we work in Colombia, Fair Trade USA was already collaborating with one of our local partners on two separate FT4All pilots by the time we chose to engage with the process. If CRS had chosen to sit it out, it would not have kept the process from happening. It would only have kept us from seeing the process up close, learning from it, and potentially influencing it.

      And while we respect the principled stand Equal Exchange has made to oppose FT4All, we were doubtful that adding our voice to the opposition would contribute perceptibly to the likelihood of a rollback of FT4All’s pilot process – something we generally consider to be a remote possibility.

      And of course, either of these approaches would have made it impossible for us to pursue any of the three worthy objectives identified in this post.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS