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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.


  • Michael,

    I think you are right that the article mistakenly claims as proven (namely that “Corporate sponsorship is undermining a wide network of democratic, farmer-owned co-ops”) when it should have made clear that this is more correctly a widespread fear on the part of virtually all producer co-ops, as well as mission-driven FT companies. I would call it more a case of it not being explicitly documented by US academics though, although many producer co-ops can speak knowledgeably of a long history of actions taken by non-mission companies engaged in Fair Trade to undermine and break small farmer co-ops. For a quick example, you can see and our articles about the Peruvian small farmer banana co-operatives fighting off the attempts by Dole to reassert its monopoly in Northern Peru under the banner of Fair Trade

    I think you may also be letting your desire for a reasoned “debate” cloud your vision about the agenda of FTUSA. Although GMCR is officially reserving judgement on the plantation model (until “all facts are in”), FTUSA has had no qualms about loudly proclaiming the success of its new standards with every nickel of premiums that farmworkers get to disburse.

    The root of the current crisis in the world of FT isn’t a debate over strategy. I was at the SCAA meeting in Boston in 2002 when Paul Rice proposed certifying coffee plantations as Fair Trade. He lost that round, and every subsequent round on coffee and cacao. He had two honorable choices at this point: 1) keep making the case for changing the rules until his position won the day, 2) go off and create a new label that made clear its different criteria (Paul Trade or what-have-you). There has been plenty of reasoned debate, but no crisis with the rise of Rainforest Alliance, Direct Trade, Utz, Whole Trade, etc. Instead, Paul chose the most unfortunate route of appropriating the name “Fair Trade Certified” and “Fair Trade USA” while unilaterally and opaquely lowering the bar, and leaving a $1 million unpaid bill to FLO to boot.

    The token gestures towards producer co-operatives (e.g. the recent grants amount to less than his annual performance bonus according to the 2010 tax returns) have not mollified the near unanimous protests from farmer co-operatives. The “fears” of small farmer producer co-ops should take precedence over the market needs of WalMart.

    -Dan Fireside, Equal Exchange

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thank you for your comment.

      As I suggested in my post, I agree with you: FTUSA’s claims of impact are premature. Or at least, partial. The improvements to dental and eye care for workers on the Fazenda Nossa Senhora de Fatima are real and worth celebrating. But as I wrote here, it is not enough for FT4All to create positive impacts on the lives of estate workers and independent smallholders. It also has to avoid doing harm to the smallholder coffee cooperatives already in the system.

      But the debate around FT4All is not really about impact assessment.

      You suggest it is not a debate about strategy, either.

      Your principal objection here seems to be the process by which FT4All came into being – a clear point of consensus among opponents of FT4All. The implication of this line of criticism is that the poor process of which FT4All was born makes it fundamentally illegitimate. Do you see a way that FT4All can legitimize itself in its current iteration? If so, how? Does impact assessment play any role in that process? If not, what would you like to see happen?


  • As always, thoughtful commentary from Michael Sheridan. And, great insights Daniel.

    I agree that the us versus them approach to much of the debate is limiting and rigid. I actually do think many good things could come from FTUSA’s approach. However, I think that they captured decades of work done by a broad range of activists and then unilaterally changed the rules of the game.

    If a political candidate proposed to bring direct financial prosperity to women or people of African heritage along with rescinding their voting rights, we would focus on the loss of rights, not on the programs for financial prosperity. FTUSA’s approach has done just that, removed the voting rights of all small farmer organizations in the fair trade system. Fair trade was born with this paternalistic approach, perhaps out of necessity as there were few organized farmers’ organizations until the last 10 or 15 years. Many of us in the global north have supported our farmer allies to create room at the table for farmers’ organizations, with voice and vote. Now the results of that work have been crushed.

    I find it very hard to focus on the good work to come when faced with that egregious act. Paul has told me that I am mistaken and don’t understand. I disagree. In the name of expediency, FTUSA has turned a multistakeholder movement into a social enterprise with no discernible accountability to farmers or other stakeholders.

    I don’t believe our outrage is about the corporate agenda. In the name of increased dignity, prosperity and market access, FTUSA has resorted to tactics that smell, taste and look like 21st century colonialism—the charismatic white man from the North knows what is best for farmers, workers and fair trade customers.

  • Miguel Zamora says:

    Hi Michael,
    I was disappointed in the approach that The Nation article took to the issue. Particularly in this fixation on specific personalities and bringing some of the same opinions we have heard already several times.

    Unfortunately the article did not include the voice of the workers or small-scale farmers involved in the pilots or who would like to be part of Fair Trade and currently can’t. For me this is the big missing part on most of the information and discussion out there about this topic. We offered and even facilitated the opportunity for such discussion with workers but the author decided to leave that outside.

    For those of us who are pushing the idea that Fair Trade should try including workers and more small-scale farmers as long as the market for Fair Trade cooperatives continue growing, this article did little to contribute to the discussion about how (if) Fair Trade can really benefit those millions that are currently not included in Fair Trade but who might be the ones that need Fair Trade the most.

    Miguel Zamora

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thanks for your comment. I agree that the article’s primary focus was the politics of the U.S. Fair Trade movement. I think we are still waiting for the first thorough piece exploring the developmental impacts of different approaches to Fair Trade. In the meantime, we have been trying to fill that gap with our posts to this blog, and discussions like this one are an important contribution to the process.


    • Michael Zelmer says:


      Like Jonathan, I’m struck by the irony of your comment. Lamenting that workers and farmers from your pilots weren’t included in the article, when so many more farmers and workers have been clear in their opposition to those same pilots, is a curious approach to take — especially when these dissenting voices have been absent from your own communications.

      Michael – of course impact should play a central role in the evaluation of any program. But, beyond the poor process that has clearly tarnished FT4All for many people, there also appears to be a very real breach of trust that will surely undermine faith in any impact assessment.

      Given the history of these initiatives, as well as the press releases and articles already touting the pilots’ success, I suspect it will be difficult for most to take later impact assessments seriously.

      Michael Zelmer, Fairtrade Canada

  • Miguel,

    I agree that it would be good to provide the perspective of the workers you are working with. And, it is ironic that talk about voice of farmers as my concern is partially with WHAT your organization, Fairtrade USA is doing but mostly with HOW you are doing it. From my perspective and the dozens of coop leaders I have talked to as well, you have unilaterally taken away not only voice but VOTE from the hundreds of cooperatives involved in fair trade while building your program on the intellectual capital and sweat capital they invested in the system.

    So, while we can agree that the Nation article didn’t cover every angle of the issue, we can disagree on the subject of voice and vote.

    As I wrote earlier:

    If a political candidate proposed to bring direct financial prosperity to women or people of African heritage along with rescinding their voting rights, we would focus on the loss of rights, not on the programs for financial prosperity. FTUSA’s approach has done just that, removed the voting rights of all small farmer organizations in the fair trade system. Fair trade was born with this paternalistic approach, perhaps out of necessity as there were few organized farmers’ organizations until the last 10 or 15 years. Many of us in the global north have supported our farmer allies to create room at the table for farmers’ organizations, with voice and vote. Now the results of that work have been crushed.

    This is an important conversation and I hope we all find more ways to have this conversation and debate our differences.

  • Michael,

    Thanks as always for your interesting and thoughtful reflections and for trying to keep this debate going. I found that my responses were too long to post as a comment here, (apologies) so I posted them on our blog:


    Phyllis Robinson
    Equal Exchange

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