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284. Two, three, many Fair Trades

The manager of a Fair Trade coffee cooperative in Central America told me recently that Fair Trade USA’s decision to make estates and independent smallholder farmers eligible for Fair Trade Certification is creating another version of Fair Trade — one that has very little to do with his idea of what Fair Trade is all about.

Fair Trade USA may be introducing radical change to the U.S. market for Fair Trade Certified coffee, but splintering is nothing new to Fair Trade.  For more than a decade after the advent of Fair Trade Certification, the generic “Fair Trade” banner has obscured considerable diversity and no small amount of tension within the movement.  Up until now, the relationship bewteen the mission-driven and market-based currents of the movement has been complicated at times, but stable and mostly manageable.  The introduction of two new production systems and three new sets of standards, however, has multiplied its variants and renewed debate about the core principles of Fair Trade.  One observer wonders whether Fair Trade will fall apart.






  • Miguel Zamora says:

    Hi Michael,
    Thank you for the post. Just to clarify a couple of points from my perspective:
    – the two “new” production models are not really new to Fair Trade. They have already existed in other Fair Trade products sold in Europe and the U.S. And there are successful cases with farm workers where Fair Trade has created significant improvements in the lives of workers (from what I have seen in Ecuador with flower farm workers and what many others have seen first-hand in tea and bananas). We (FTUSA) are trying to learn of those successful cases to see if we can bring that to coffee (where this is new).
    – FT coffee producers for many years have been asking for more growth in the market. I have been in a lot of meetings with FT producers and other FT actors where the main request was to continue growing the market (beyond organic, beyond high quality coffee) since several FT producer organizations (and small-scale farmers in FT) had these types of coffee and also wanted to sell it in FT terms. I think this part is sometimes lost in the discussions: that FT producers have asked for years that the FT market grows and grows beyond high-quality organic coffee. That market (and those buyers) tend to be different than the roasters that participated in FT at the beginning.

    I don’t think that this is “mission driven” versus “market based”. All of us working in FT USA are mission-driven people working in a mission-driven organization. We just want to bring more benefits to more people through Fair Trade. That is why we are piloting in coffee existing Fair Trade standards that have provided significant impact to people.

    Thank you again for the information and for the discussions.

    Saludos desde Oakland

  • Rodney North says:

    Miguel’s comments about growing the Fair Trade market beyond organic & specialty categories implies that this motivated FTUSA’s move to certify plantations – but I don’t see the connection.

    Co-ops, like plantations, produce a variety of grades of coffee, including excellent coffee that sells for top dollar, and lower grades that are left over after careful processing. As we all know the current roster of small farmer, FT-certified co-ops are only selling 33% of their production on FT terms. The rest – over 500 million pounds annually – is sold on the regular market. If Folgers or some other importer/roaster who doesn’t need top-notch beans wanted coffee for their mass-market blends the co-ops can provide that, too.

    Also, I’d like to add on behalf of those on our side of the debate that there is something unconvincing about the repeated statements from Fair Trade USA that “farmers/producers tell us XYZ” – when XYZ contradicts the numerous public comments from the producer co-ops and their networks. In case a reader is new to the debate (and I do hope this blog is attracting new readers daily) the co-ops supplying the Fair Trade market are overwhelming, and adamant, in their opposition to FT4All schema. See: “Producer Point of View” at

  • Rodney North says:

    Hi Michael,

    The chart is excellent. I wish I could create something like that.

    With that said – there’s a typo or two.

    1st – the “1988” mark on the time (“The Colonizers Settle”) should be “1998”.

    2nd – at the 2003 mark (“The Estate Issue emerges”). While it’s technically true to write “TransFair USA tells smallholder farmers it won’t certify estates.” it’s also misleading and leaves out a critical element that foreshadows the current controversy. It was at the 2003 SCAA conference when TransFair USA surprised the whole industry, and not least the farmer co-ops and Fair Traders, that it had decided to certify estates. Of course, all hell broke loose and only after a avalanche of push-back and public condemnation did TransFair USA tell “smallholder farmers it won’t certify estates.”

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thanks for the kind words and the corrections.

      I always welcome the generous insights of folks like you who have a longer lens on the Fair Trade process than I do.

      I have posted an updated version of the graph that corrects the typo you spotted.


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