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300. More on The Nation’s coverage of Fair Trade

2012-09-06 Comments Off on 300. More on The Nation’s coverage of Fair Trade

As I reflect more on The Nation’s excellent article on the split in the Fair Trade movement, I am reminded of a product review by Ritual Coffee, the iconic San Francisco roaster, that included this passage:  “Did we once tell you that the Hario Hand Mills were the best hand grinders available? Yes. Are we telling you now that the Porlex Mill is even better? Absolutely.”

I am feeling the same way about the article in The Nation.  Did I say last week it is the best, farthest-reaching coverage to date on the current state of the Fair Trade movement?  Yes.  Am I saying now there is still room for improvement in understanding the issues?  Absolutely.

Where do I still see room for improvement in the coverage of the Fair Trade split (including my own)?


The article focused relentlessly on the corporate threat to Fair Trade – a thread that wove the story together, from the ominous subtitle at the start to the specter of corporate capture near the end – without any exploration of the benefits that corporate Fair Trade has generated for smallholder farmers.

For lack of better alternatives, I myself have used the crude terms “market-based” and “mission-driven” on this blog in an effort to distinguish between different kinds of businesses in the Fair Trade marketplace — a distinction that may be less than precise.  But in my mind, The Nation’s obsession with the corporate threat creates a more fundamental misrepresentation of the Fair Trade marketplace:

Fair Trade coffee has been a valuable experiment that has brought concrete benefits to hundreds of thousands of farmers.  But it rests upon a fragile foundation, and the corporate embrace of the concept could undo decades of work by activists, consumers and farmers…

This quote implies (falsely in my opinion) that:

  • “The corporate embrace” is new.

The article implies that Fair Trade USA’s Fair Trade for All initiative has raised the prospect of “the corporate embrace” for the first time in a marketplace otherwise dominated by grassroots actors.  That is certainly not the case.  Daniel Jaffee and Phil Howard last year published this excellent infographic.  It shows that coffee corporations came late to the Fair Trade game, and don’t source as much of their coffee on Fair Trade terms as the pioneers.  But it also shows that corporations are moving more Fair Trade coffee than the pioneers are, and have been doing so for a good while.  The advent of corporate Fair Trade has not toppled Fair Trade – on the contrary, it seems to have gotten stronger as a whole…

  • Fair Trade is a zero-sum affair.

The article suggests that corporate Fair Trade can only prosper at the expense of mission-driven Fair Trade, while the numbers tell a different story.  The decade or so that corporate and mission-driven Fair Trade have coexisted has been marked by some rocky moments, but it has been a period of significant growth for roasters in both categories.  Corporate roasters entered the Fair Trade marketplace in 1999 with the advent of Fair Trade certification in the United States.  Their trading volumes quickly outstripped those of the grassroots roasters that preceded them in the Fair Trade marketplace, and have grown steadily over time.  The growth in corporate Fair Trade didn’t necessarily displace mission-driven roasters from the marketplace, however — they have thrived, too.  Since 1999, pioneer Equal Exchange has seen its sales grow from $6.2 million a year to nearly $50 million.

And my experience at origin suggests that corporate Fair Trade has been a winning proposition for farmers — it is complementing, not displacing mission-driven Fair Trade, creating more opportunities for more smallholder coffee farmers to access the Fair Trade marketplace than they would have with mission-driven Fair Trade alone.


The author notes that none of the coffee people who are sympathetic to FT4All were willing to go on record to support it.  He attributes their reluctance to Paul Rice’s sharp elbows.  That may be a part of the story.  But it is important to acknowledge that the acrimonious tone of the public debate also discourages people from speaking freely, and that the tenor of articles like this one – “The Brawl Over Fair Trade Coffee” – doesn’t help.

CRS is one of the few organizations that has been willing to speak up publicly in support of FT4All.  Actually, we haven’t expressed our support for it as much as we have timidly suggested that it may generate some benefits for smallholder coffee farmers whose market opportunities are currently limited by their exclusion from the Fair Trade model.  And we have agreed to support a single pilot on a small scale to learn more.  Even that mild show of support was met by stinging public rebuke.  There have also been expressions of support, but these have been private –  people in the industry who support our stance but are afraid to do so publicly for fear of recriminations or being identified in the media with one side or another of a polarized debate.

And the focus in media coverage on personalities can distract readers from some of the underlying developmental challenges that FT4All has the potential to address.

(I acknowledge that I played into both of these tendencies by suggesting to The Nation that Paul Rice doesn’t have it in his character to throw in the towel.)


Finally, I found that the article reflects a stubborn shortcoming in the broader public discussions of this issue on both sides – the tendency to argue based on principled positions without results-based evidence.  The article’s subtitle – “Corporate sponsorship is undermining a wide network of democratic, farmer-owned co-ops” – is a theory.  The process by which FT4All came to be violated core Fair Trade values of transparency and dialogue.  And the advent of Fair Trade estate coffee has the potential to undermine the market position of cooperatives.  But there is no evidence so far to show that FT4All has undermined coop networks.  (On the flip side, there is no rigorous evidence yet to support FTUSA’s optimistic claims about FT4All’s developmental impact.)

The one reference in the article to efforts to measure the concrete impacts of FT4All on the ground – Green Mountain’s certified coffee buyer Ed Canty explained that GMCR will not label pilot project coffee as FT until it has carefully evaluated impact – was casually dismissed by the author.

Until there is concrete evidence available on the commercial or social impacts of FT4All, an article on efforts to assess its impacts that is as thorough in its approach as The Nation was here would be an important contribution to the discussion.