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319. Please call me by my true names

CRS has been working to support smallholder coffee farmers — both in the coffeelands and in the U.S. marketplace — for the better part of 10 years.  For most of that time we have kept a low profile, working quietly to help farmers increase coffee productivity, quality and income at origin and  expand the market for Fair Trade coffee in the United States.  Over the past year, however, CRS has found itself embroiled in two coffee controversies — one related to a Fair Trade for All pilot project with independent smallholder farmers in Colombia, the other surrounding our efforts to help family farmers in Ecuador position themselves for opportunities in the emerging market for specialty Robusta.

Conversations with opponents of both initiatives have me wondering: does the problem reside primarily in the nature of the work we are doing on the ground, or the use of the terms “Fair Trade” and “specialty” to describe it?

On the surface, Fair Trade for All and the specialty Robusta project bear little resemblance to one another.  But they have an important common denominator: both trade on intellectual property that was developed collaboratively, and both unilaterally take collective assets in new and unexpected directions.


FT4All has been a lightning rod for criticism since Fair Trade USA first announced it last September.  In an effort to “double the impact of Fair Trade by 2015,” FT4All expands eligibility for the U.S. Fair Trade coffee market to include both large estates and independent smallholder farmers — two production models that were not part of the DNA of the Fair Trade coffee movement at its inception.

Publicly, FTUSA has been decried for both the process by which FT4All came to be and for the content of the initiative.  Privately, some opponents have acknowledged that the plight of landless estate workers is worthy of attention; that the lack of farmer organization for the marketplace represents a stubborn obstacle to community development throughout the coffeelands; and that our efforts to address the latter challenge is an appropriate undertaking for a development agency whose mandate is to serve the most vulnerable people.  They just don’t think it should be called “Fair Trade.”

In FT4All they see the appropriation and misuse of the “Fair Trade” concept — an intangible asset that was developed collectively and applied within a specific context, at least partly in opposition to the estates the Fair Trade Certified concept now embraces in the United States.

But what if it weren’t called Fair Trade?


The recent move by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) to bring Robusta coffees into the specialty fold for the first time ever has elicited strong opposition on the basis of principles similar to those invoked by critics of FT4All.

More than 10 years before the first imports of Fair Trade coffee to the United States, a small community of coffee pioneers began pushing the frontier of innovation in coffee with a distinctively artisan approach to roasting and an exacting focus on quality.  Later, CQI built the Q program that helped to standardize the concept and vocabulary of quality for Arabica coffees those pioneers introduced — a critical development in the consolidation and expansion of the specialty segment of the market.

Now, CQI is applying the logic behind the Q program to Robusta coffees from which specialty coffee spent so much time and effort to distance itself.  Like the critics of FT4All, critics of “specialty Robusta” object to CQI’s application of the term specialty — a concept built and defended collectively through the effort of thousands of coffee professionals over decades — to an unfamiliar context.

But no one seems to oppose the idea of helping increase coffee incomes for smallholder farmers who, by accident of geography, aren’t able to grow Arabica.

Again, I wonder whether the whole endeavor would be less threatening if the plan for the R program didn’t cleave so tightly to the script of the Q program and didn’t lay claim to the mantle of specialty.


  • Rodney North says:

    Yep, names, and language, do matter – a lot. That’s why these things must be debated.
    For example we’ve seen debates for years regarding what may be called “Champagne” or “bourbon” (the whiskey I mean, or “whisky” in Japan). We saw it in the knock-down-drag-out fight in the late ’90s over “organic”. We saw it repeatedly over “chocolate” – most recently in ’07 when the large corporations wanted to dilute the definition so as to use cheaper ingredients like vegetable oils in lieu of cocoa butter – a switch that by the way would have been bad for taste, bad for consumers, very bad for cocoa farmers, but good for the profits of some. Some of those same corporations are now involved in the Fair Trade market.

    While I won’t opine on the robusta issue I will say that in regards to FT4All it is another example of over-reach where one entity has just gone too far in trying to stretch the definition of something beyond what the majority of the movement will accept.

    And while we’re on this subject I have to bring up my two favorite examples of this kind of ‘word stretch’:
    Three years ago the Canadian arm of US-based Hellman’s (owned in turn by Europe’s Unilever) tried to market their mayonnaise to 33 million Canadians across 4,000 miles and 6 time zones as ‘local’ as it was made in Canada with Canadian canola oil.

    And this Spring Dunkin’ Donuts (who has 7,000 US locations) try to sell their bagels as “artisanal”

    Thankfully almost all these efforts got shot down or ridiculed, though often it was a close call. And with “organic” the movement did manage to keep irradiation, GMO’s, and the use of toxic sludge out of the system, but unfortunately all of the _social_ criteria that many organic pioneers and advocates believed to be integral to organic farming got cut of the official gov’t approved definition.

  • Scott says:

    “Fairtrade” is (unfortunately) now just another corporate sales term. No one is able (or willing) to check that every company actually helps those that the original program was designed to aid. It’s just another ‘sticker’ they slap on the box to increase sales.

    “Robusta” (or honestly anything below 99.9% is so out of fashion that it surely will be a fight to get anyone (must less the mainstream consumer) interested in the product. I certainly support the product! And I sure wish more roasters would learn to appreciate it’s subtleties, instead of using it as a ‘filler’ to make their Arabica blends cheaper to produce.

    • Michael Zelmer says:

      I wish I’d noticed Scott’s comment when he left it.

      For what it’s worth, and for the record, his comment on the Fairtrade system (or perhaps Fair Trade as a whole), is baseless nonsense.

      Speaking only for the former, anyone making a modicum of effort would soon learn of the scope and depth of the Fairtrade standards, the process through which they’re created and reviewed, the rigor of the certification and its ISO accreditation, the resources that are channeled to producers above and beyond the certification system, and the extent to which producers have real power in the governance of the Fairtrade system.

      Michael Zelmer
      Fairtrade Canada

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