Changes in the World of Fair Trade

Changes in the World of Fair Trade

By Carl Haakenstad, Bulk Buyer

For starters, you may wonder what Fair Trade really means.  In basic terms, Fair Trade means that the company (or cooperative) that is marketing a particular product has worked directly with a producer, grower, or importer of said specific product.  In working with them, they ensure that the producer, grower, or importer of the product receives a fair price for their goods.  Additionally, an important aspect of Fair Trade is having a third party certifying organization, similar to organic certifiers, that verifies Fair Trade principles were followed in growing and selling the product.  Fair Trade principles include: Long-Term Direct Trading Relationships; Payment of Fair Prices and Wages; No Child, Forced or Otherwise Exploited Labor; and Environmental Sustainability, just to name a few.

Prior to the establishment of Fair Trade principles and certification, international commodity markets such as those for coffee and chocolate, were dominated by a small number of larger companies who could ensure that the price for coffee beans or cacao remained low.  Due to this dominated system, the small grower was often powerless and the prices they were paid for their products was often so low that they could barely make any profit and almost certainly could not expect to improve their growing operations or lives.

Fair Trade principles originally encouraged smaller growers and producers to organize themselves into cooperatives in order to increase their power in the larger global market.  In this way, these principles allowed the small farmer to make a fair living while still staying small and personally owned by the farmer.  Since the advent of Fair Trade Certified products, grower and producer cooperatives have been important social institutions for their communities.  In fact, through these cooperatives and their efforts, many community improvement projects have been implemented.

The three main brands of coffee that we sell at the Oneota Co-op (Kickapoo Coffee, Peace Coffee, and Just Coffee) all belong to a coffee importing cooperative called Cooperative Coffees.  Through relations with Cooperative Coffees, these roasters are able to work directly with the coffee grower co-ops.  This cooperative relationship also affords employees from these roasters the opportunity to take trips to visit the grower cooperatives.  Ultimately this strengthens the bond between the roaster and the grower, as well as helping them direct input on the coffee quality.  Not only is the quality of the final product oftentimes better, but the adherence to the Fair Trade principles ensures the farmer is paid a fair price for their product.

Now that we’ve covered the backstory, let’s delve into a proposed change coming to the world of Fair Trade.  Fair Trade USA, formerly TransFair, is one of the largest Fair Trade certifiers.  They are seeking to lower Fair Trade standards by allowing products from plantations to be Fair Trade Certified.  This proposed change essentially goes against the original reason for creating a Fair Trade certification, which was to allow small farmers and their cooperatives to have fair market access.  From the beginning Fair Trade has been about small producers organized into democratically-controlled cooperatives.  Plantations have an unfair advantage through economics of scale and are not necessarily democratically and small-farmer owned.  It is believed that large growers, therefore, should not be able to market their products as Fair Trade since the label and certification were originally created to help the small growers compete against plantations.

If you would like to learn more about this issue, please visit the Equal Exchange website and join their campaign against TransFair/Fair Trade USA’s weakening of fair trade standards:

I am proud to say that we once again carry Equal Exchange coffee in the Oneota Bulk department.  Equal Exchange is a cooperative business that sells only Fair Trade products, not to mention they roast delicious coffee.  We currently have two varieties of their coffee: Midnight Sun—an intensely dark French roast coffee that is balanced and delicious with rich chocolate fudge notes and a syrupy mouthfeel, and Mind, Body, and Soul— a blend of medium and dark roasted beans that creates a wonderful, rich blend in your mug.  Try some Equal Exchange or any of our other fair trade (and organic) coffees and taste what real Fair Trade coffee is like.