how fair is fair trade?

originally posted on march 18th 2010

well, fair trade fortnight has been and gone. amazingly, in two weeks at two sites we have not had one customer ask if our coffee is fair trade. this is possibly down to two reasons; primarily that coffee has had no mention this year and all the publicity has been around chocolate – seemingly cadburys in particular. or perhaps it is because of the tough economic times and peoples concerns are closer to home?

with each new member of staff I have taken on, i have trained them to answer the “is your coffee fair trade?” question with a very short reply; “our coffee is better than fair trade”. this draws either one of two reactions; shock or intrigue. either way, it gives us the immediate attention of the customer and allows us to quickly explain the advantages of long term direct relationships with growers and how union hand roasted pay premium prices and provide pre-harvest investment to their farmers. we can also talk about the expert technical assistance they provide in a true collaboration between roaster and farmer….all the while emphasising how worthy fair trade has been for many other growers in the developing world.

fair trade is extremely significant to the world. its impact on coffee farmers, and its position as an alternative to the basic commodity market make fair trade deeply vital to our future, but to quote james hoffman, fair trade is “the absolute minimum necessary to get people to stop questioning how you source, or pushing you to do better.

the most basic problem with fair trade is that is does not reward producer quality or excellence – just volume. in last decembers guardian newspaper, economist paul collier argues that “fair trade ‘effectively ensures that people get charity as long as they stay producing the crops that have locked them into poverty’. fair trade reduces the incentive to diversify crop production and encourages the utilisation of resources on marginal land that could be better employed for other produce. the organisation also appears wedded to an image of a notional anti-modernist rural idyll.”

other issues involve the rules of becoming a fair trade producer. for example, farms must not be more than 12 acres in size and they are not allowed to employ any full-time workers. our single estate filter coffee comes from a family run farm in guatemala; even if they wanted to join a fair trade co-operative they could not do so unless they downsized and laid off a number of their key full time workers. fair?

there have been reports of fair trade co-operatives giving up their certification as the bureaucracy and additional administrative costs outweigh the additional 15¢ per pound they receive. similarly, there have been reports in the economist and time magazine of non-fair trade produce being repackaged and making its way onto the market as certified.

again, i am not anti fair trade, but i do believe we all need to be brave and take part in a grown up discussion on the subject. it is a start, but the union model is one that better rewards the producer through sustained investment and long term partnerships.

i’ll finish with a quick story though…about 18 months ago I was visited by an employee of the local council. she worked for their fair trade team and asked if i would like to be listed on their website and in their magazine as an ‘official fair trade retailer’? i told her about union hand roasted and their sourcing, i told her the names of  some of the growers we have a relationship with and i told her we used to sell a rwandan fair trade coffee that was chosen on merit and not on certification. she seemed thoroughly disinterested in this, but then pointed out that our brown and white sugar sachets were fair trade certified, as was one of the chocolate bars we sold. that counted as three items, so if we were to sell just one more fair trade item we could then join the list! (sugars are provided free to customers by the way). now, perhaps you can tell me what she couldn’t…who is that really being fair to?


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