What Not to Expect from Fair Trade Certification

Yesterday’s New York Times ran a human interest story about fair trade coffee in Chiapas. My two takeaways from the story:

  • Raise of fair trade coffee prices to $1.51 per pound. “The price for Fair Trade organic coffee has long been fixed at $1.41 a pound and this year it will rise to $1.51 compared with the market price of about $1.08.”
  • Expanding list of NGOs acting as middleman between growers and corporations.

Any discussion of fair trade coffee in the media is encouraging; but after reading the article thrice, I was still left with the lingering question of, “So, does the fair trade coffee model work?”

The thing is, fair trade coffee certification is not without its shortcomings. And I submit to you that any system based on “trust and respect” (one of Equal Exchange’s fair trade commitment) is inherently more difficult to quantify and standardize because it is bias towards basic human needs and relationships.

The commitment of fair trade coffee certification is largely three-fold:

  • Minimum market prices for organic coffee;
  • Ecologically sustainable farming practices; and
  • Democratically-run farming cooperatives

As noted in the NYT article, a coffee farmer is now able to afford to send his daughters to college–an investment that will only be reaped in the long run–but, as also duly noted, fair trade cannot “solve all the problems of inequality here.”

And here lies the rub: An innate expectation that because fair trade is “good” it ought to alleviate poverty, make things alright, and level the playing field. Guess what? That’s not what fair trade delivers–at least not on a large scale.

The commitments of fair trade are a blend of practical and aspirational–most importantly, it serves as a lifeline for many farmers and families seeking better alternatives and opportunities. (And it takes the good works of many more unsung heroes in the coffee chain to support and sustain the fair trade model.) However, it is not appropriate to expect fair trade to be a long-term economical solution for the masses. Rather than comparing fair trade to insurance, I’d suggest that it is closer to on the job training that opens doors to different–likely better–opportunities given the stable wages and business skills acquired.

Bottom line for coffee drinkers: Educate yourself on the issues (here) and do ask for fairly-traded coffee at your local joint for your dollars will benefit those in the coffee chain (see below). Additionally, realize that just because something isn’t fair trade certified doesn’t mean that it is “evil.”