The Battle for Fair Trade Rages On

Back in January 2012, in response to Fair Trade USA’s (FTUSA) decision to begin certifying plantation-grown coffee, I wrote that fair trade was dead. Some critics vehemently disagreed with my assessment, seeming to take issue with the sweeping declarative statement I made, and accusing me of conflating the concept of “fair trade” with the products distributed by FTUSA. While I do not conflate the two, in reality, most consumers in the US do. Because the vast majority of fair trade certified coffee distributed in the US is licensed by FTUSA, it has until this year born the widely recognized black and white label the organization has used since 1999. As we sociologists say, while it may not be factually true that FTUSA and “fair trade” are one in the same, that consumers conflate them makes this conflation true in its consequences. Since the US market accounts for over half of global fair trade certified coffee consumption, for small producers the inclusion of plantations in the FTUSA model does in fact signal the death of fair trade. When the majority of the marketplace shifts the terms of trade to your disadvantage, “fair trade” is little more than a broken dream. Yet, I am happy to report that in the aftermath of this historic change at FTUSA, the battle for fair trade rages on in the hearts, minds, and collective action of small producers and those who advocate for them. On the heels of a forum held to address this issue at the recent convention of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), this post brings you the voices of those fighting to preserve the integrity of the fair trade movement.

One end of FTUSA’s installation on the convention floor. Photo by author.

The scene surrounding fair trade stakeholders at this year’s SCAA meeting, held in Portland, Oregon in April, was a contentious one, thick with tension, riven by frustration, and inflected by determined response. The convention floor gave physical testament to FTUSA’s split from Fairtrade International (FTI)–a consequence of the US licensee’s decision to include large-scale coffee plantations in its certification model. The “booth” of FTUSA had the look of a fortress made slick by design and PR professionals. By far the largest installation in the exhibition hall–it outsized all others by at least a multiplier of three–the “booth” featured a walled pop-up conference room that discouraged those without official business from entering, and seemed a place of refuge for the organization’s embattled leadership. This construction and its social implications read as strange because the point of the convention for attendees is to network and forge new business contracts. Most organization representatives make themselves publicly available, and eager to talk with anyone who pauses at their both. Instead, producer representatives from about a dozen regions acted as the “face” of FTUSA on the convention floor, and stood stationed around the outer ring of the installation. Despite its break from focusing on small producers, either end of the booth featured larger-than-life photographs of smiling coffee farmers at work.

It struck me as both sad and telling that the collection of tables, people, and materials representing FTI and small producer organizations (SPOs) was located at the opposite end of the exhibition hall. The physical separation served as a poignant reminder of the ideological divide that has grown between the two sectors of the movement. I would learn on the following day from an NGO stakeholder that the two organizations–FTUSA and FTI–are locked in a multimillion dollar lawsuit over unpaid licensing fees that FTI argues it is owed by FTUSA after the organization failed to pay up for past-due licensing fees after it split from the international umbrella organization. The hodgepodge of tables, signage, and people milling around the FTI and SPO area offered a stark contrast to the domineering installation constructed by FTUSA. The difference made visibly clear the marketing power and budget that FTUSA has over other organizations within the fair trade movement, which is why the battle to preserve and define fair trade is so significant. FTUSA has controlled the narrative of fair trade within the US since it introduced certified products to the US market in 1999. This power to determine the narrative of the movement in the US drowns out oppositional voices that are fighting the inclusion of plantations.

Despite my vehement disagreement with this new policy, it is important to recognize that those who lead FTUSA believe deeply that what they are doing is right. Speaking at a forum held on the future of fair trade at the convention, Paul Katzeff, founder and owner of Thanksgiving Coffee Company, stated that he has known Paul Rice, President and CEO of FTUSA, for years. He considers Rice a close friend, but said that carrying on conversations with him over the last six months has been incredibly difficult as the choice to include plantations in the fair trade model–which Rice truly believes is the best thing for the movement–represents a fundamental break from the core values of the movement which Katzeff avows. Another source I spoke with on the issue, who prefers to remain anonymous, shed light on Rice’s stance. This source described his attitude as that of a religious zealot who is so convinced by his own dogmatic stance that he cannot see the flaws in his logic, and noted that even if Rice did begin to see those flaws, it would be too difficult and embarrassing to back away from an unpopular position that one has gone to such great lengths to defend.

Rice’s commitment is no doubt difficult for him to maintain in light of the multifaceted critique coming from all levels of stakeholders in the movement, which were featured at a forum on the future of fair trade held on a Saturday morning during the convention. Those in attendance included small farmers, cooperative and SPO leaders, and exporters from around the world; importers, roasters, distributors and coffee company owners from the US, the UK, Europe, and Australia; and representatives from movement affiliated NGOs. Despite the early hour, the room was packed with 100-120 supporters of fair trade. The forum featured eight panelists ranging from small producers to NGO leaders who made brief critical statements against FTUSA’s new policy, and offered suggestions for how to maintain the integrity of the movement. A question and answer period during which about a dozen attendees also voiced critiques of FTUSA followed the panel presentations.

While FTUSA has branded its changed policy “Fair Trade for All,” and maintains that by certifying plantations farm laborers will receive the benefits of fair trade, like small producers have for twenty-five years, members of the movement disagree. Dana Geffner, Director of the Fair World Project, pointed out in her panel statement that, “Certified fair trade plantations have been a part of the system in a number of other product categories, like tea and bananas, and research has demonstrated that fair trade is not the right model to protect farm workers, and often undermines in-country organizing efforts, and union organizing.” During the Q&A period, Richard Hyde of Twin Trading, a fair trade importer based in the UK, reiterated and expanded on this statement:

“First the bad news: for sure there’s a problem with estates [plantations], that’s true. But there’s a much more serious problem I think in the betrayal of Fair Trade USA, and that is bringing in transnationals and traders who are linked in some odd way with disorganized farmers [emphasis added]. That brings real confusion and spells potential real disaster in the system.”

Given that the fair trade movement was initially founded on the promise of solidarity amongst communities of small producers, incorporating plantations, which are known both historically and contemporaneously for using exploitative labor models and tactics of intimidation against worker organization and collective bargaining, is a betrayal of this founding principle.

Others point out that this move grates against another of the movement’s core principles: environmental sustainability. The day before the forum I had the opportunity to speak with Silvio Cerda, Coffee Director of CLAC (Latin American and Caribbean Network of Small Fair Trade Producers), on the floor of the exhibition hall. Of the ability of small producers to steward the environment in ways that large scale plantations cannot, he said:

“[A] small producer lives on his farm, and he needs to protect, to conserve the environment–the water sources and the other elements of the natural world. But of course, big producers mostly do not live in the plantation, but in the city and other countries. And so, beyond the economic and social importance of the small producer activity, and the work that small producers do, is the environmental sustainability. Because the big plantations, in order to obtain more profit, they implement intensive technologies which employ deforestation in order to increase the density of trees per square acre. That is another very important difference that goes beyond the system or the community or the farm: it is important for the whole of humanity.”

The environmental and labor implications of welcoming plantations into FTUSA’s system are pressing, but the main critique of this decision is that it departs from the founding intent of the fair trade movement: to give small producers access to a global market dominated by large buyers and transnational coffee corporations. Of this, Jonathan Rosenthal of Just Works Consulting and one of the founders of Equal Exchange, a worker-owned fair trade certified importer and distributor which was the first company to sell fair trade coffee on the US market, said in his opening remarks, “For all of us, the modern fair trade movement was born to support organized small farmer development, and to struggle to make sure that those small holders and all aspects of the fair trade movement have a seat at the table.” Cerda also spoke of this during our conversation, and described in more detail how fair trade was conceived to give small producers access to the global market:

“Most small producers are poor people because historically their production is traded by the big exporters. Because of the small scale of production, and also because of the limited knowledge of how the international market works, small producers are not able to trade directly with the importers and traders. So, the only way to improve the income for the small producer, and based on that, to improve the quality of life, is to give them the possibility to trade their product directly. This is why the fair trade system was created. For small producers to receive a better price for their product, they had to eliminate the middle man.”

Cerda points to one of the hallmarks of fair trade products–the shortened commodity chain–that allows more of the price paid per pound of green coffee to find its way into the pockets of producers, and to support development projects in their communities. Prior to the introduction of the fair trade system, middlemen, or coyotes as they are called throughout Latin America, could manipulate geographically isolated and informationally disconnected small farmers into accepting unsustainably low prices for their harvest.

A comparison of a fair trade versus typical coffee commodity chain, courtesy of Equal Exchange.

Participating in the fair trade system has turned the tide, to a certain extent, for small producers. Of this, co-Executive Director of Equal Exchange, Rob Everts said in his panel statement:

“One of the founding principles of fair trade was to create access to the market for small producers, people traditionally locked out of the market who could never directly reach consumers. International trade is dominated by transnationals, and it was impossible for small farmers–even organized groups of small farmers–to gain access. But through sweat, sacrifice and risk taking, mistakes, failures, and above all courage and persistence, small farmer organizations have gained a level of access never experienced before the advent of fair trade.”

Everts notes that due to the power of the fair trade model and movement, small producers have been able to access the global market in previously unseen ways. Because of this access, this model has made gains toward its goal of equalizing the playing field between large coffee companies and small producers. This is why SPO advocates like Cerda argue that the decision to include plantations in FTUSA’s model serves to re-marginalize small producers, and tip the scales of power back toward transnational corporations. He explained:

“In this situation the small producer organizations will be competing under unequal conditions with big plantations and the exporters because of the resources, technologies, and of the economic scale. The big plantations have smaller cost in comparison to small producers. In the present conditions of high prices and volatility of the market, this is very important for small producer organizations to have the possibility to compete in equal conditions.”

Because small producers and their advocates view the decision of FTUSA in this way, they feel betrayed by, and frustrated and angry with the leaders of the organization. This feeling bubbled to the surface at the forum when Paul Katzeff of Thanksgiving Coffee Company said that he felt betrayed by FTUSA, after which the translator struggled to find the Spanish word for “betrayal.” A member of the audience shouted “traición,” which elicited cheers and applause from the many producers and representatives in attendance from Latin America. It was one of those electric moments that reveals the deep and intense collective emotions present.

After the forum concluded attendees milled around and chatted, and I spoke with Pasquaz, an African woman who works with producer groups in Rwanda, Burundi, and Democratic Republic of Congo through Twin Trading. When I asked what she thought of the changed policy at FTUSA, she said, “The movement of FTUSA is destroying what we believe in as small producers because it is blocking small producers from accessing the US market in a better, more advantageous way. So, I am very, very frustrated that it is happening.”

Pasquaz and others see this change as a giant step backwards for the fair trade movement, and indeed, as a betrayal of small producers. To this end, Naji Harb, the President of Brazilian Fair Trade Association, which represents about 7,000 small producers throughout the agricultural sector, expressed his own frustration and that of the producers he represents during the Q&A session. He said:

“Everyday we hear from those producers, saying, ‘Look, we are selling only fifty percent of our coffee production as fair trade.’ And yet, some players, especially in North America, are saying they need certified plantations. So perhaps I invite those players to go down to Brazil and visit those small producers and explain to them why they cannot work together with them to get 100 percent of their coffee sold as fair trade.”

Samuel Kamau, Executive Director of the AFCA at the SCAA convention. Photo by author.

In this spirited statement, Harb cited one of the key facts that fair trade advocates are pointing to in their critiques of FTUSA’s inclusion of plantations in the model: about only thirty percent of coffee produced globally under the fair trade rubric is actually sold at the fair trade minimum price to certified buyers. Samuel Kamau, Executive Director of the African Fine Coffees Association (AFCA), explained how this problem effects small producers in Africa when I spoke with him on the floor of the exhibition hall. He said, “Now, we got so efficient in fair trade production, fair trade is no longer interested in us because we over-produced fair trade certified coffee. So we have excess surplus. Fair trade is not buying the coffee.” Additionally, Kamau is very frustrated by the multitude of certifications that are now demanded of small producers, and spoke with me at length about why he perceives certifications as barriers to trade. This issue will be addressed in an upcoming post.

Back to the issue at hand, it is a fallacy to assert that plantations will allow the market for fair trade coffee to grow in consuming nations. As it stands, the global market does not consume all the certified coffee that is produced. Rather, what this move does is hand power back to large transnational buyers who wish to further streamline their costs and maximize profit by controlling production at origin. Control of suppliers by buyers in the global agricultural sector, in the apparel industry, and in the technology industry has been widely documented by researchers and NGOs as a production technique, posed as trade, that fosters deplorable and unsafe working conditions, harsh managerial techniques, human rights violations, and environmental degradation at sites of production. To see the world’s 70 million small coffee producers swallowed into this abusive relationship would be truly tragic.

Beyond the economic destabilization and exploitation that will come from the entrance of plantations into the fair trade coffee system, small producers emphasize that what is most valuable to them about participation in the movement is the solidarity that comes from organizing into democratic cooperatives. It is this aspect of the fair trade model that facilitates localized, autonomous farmer-led development initiatives. In our previous post on this topic, we noted that Merling Preza, General Manager of Prodecoop in Nicaragua and President of CLAC, made this point abundantly clear in an interview with CRS Coffeelands blogger Michael Sheridan back in November, 2011. What was shared at the forum revealed that Preza is not alone on this stance.

During his panel statement Martin Lopez of Fundepo spoke about the importance of maintaining a cooperative production and trading structure in the aftermath of the policy changes at FTUSA:

“The fact that we have decided to focus on the social, the environment, and the economic has been very advantageous for us. We have been changing our traditional techniques to improve the quality. But in spite of all of these advantages, there have been many disadvantages as well, like the changes that have happened recently within the system. That’s why we have seen the importance of the organizations and the networks. If there is something that we can really rescue and hold onto with fair trade, aside from better prices, it’s the organizations of small producers.”

Preza and Lopez see SPOs as the most significant and beneficial aspect of the fair trade movement because this form of organizing has empowered and strengthened producing communities. It is out of SPOs that important community-led development initiatives have arisen.

Forum panelist Monika Firl, Producer Relations and Communications Manager of Cooperative Coffees, a cooperative importer with offices and members in the US and Canada, spoke of “organizations as a motor for development.” She explained, “Prior to my work with Coop Coffees I spent ten years living in Central America, in Mexico, working with small scale farmer organizations. It was during that time that I learned about the constant obstacles these small holders face, and the critical importance of them becoming united in well organized and economically viable cooperatives.”

Similarly, during the Q&A session, Justin Purser, a buyer for Trade Aid in New Zealand, which imports twenty percent of the country’s specialty coffee, spoke passionately about how fair trade has fostered locally rooted development initiatives among coffee producers. He concluded his statement by saying, “I love what we are all doing, and I believe that it is a very effective way of delivering producer led development in an effective manner.”

Echoing these sentiments, when I asked Pasquaz of Twin Trading what she sees to be the most important aspect of working within the fair trade model, she said:

“The [most important] aspect is to see small producers change. Not only change in terms of producing better quality products, but also change in terms of developing their own capacities using the product they already have. So, it is a shame if they cannot access the market. It means they do not have financial assistance to be able to develop themselves. Then, they will always be dependent on external donors, which is not healthy.”

This description of what is most valuable to small producers about the fair trade system reflects the movement-wide ethos: “Trade, not aid.”

Participants at the forum also spoke about the lengths small producers have gone to to prove to specialty industry buyers that they can produce a high quality product. While conducting research with members of the specialty coffee industry throughout the Pacific Northwest and the San Francisco Bay area in 2008 and 2009, I heard from many the critique that fair trade certified coffee is not high enough quality for their customers. This “fact” was used by some as a justification for not buying fair trade certified coffee. Of this issue, Esperanza, a member of Pangoa cooperative in Peru said:

“I was in Boston in 2003 when we wanted to start selling our coffee in the fair trade market. There was a big discussion [about quality] during that time, and I remember Merling [Preza] said, with a lot of emotion, that cooperatives could offer good quality product, because there was a discussion on whether or not small producers could offer high enough quality. And so, we all decided during an SCAA event that as small producers from all over the world that we could turn in a quality of at least 80 points… Now we are all participating in this, and we are offering a coffee of high quality and it’s a fair price [for us]; it’s fair for the consumers. Our cooperatives have also developed substantially with fair trade. We have developed our quality, and we have Q[uality] graders in many of the cooperatives.”

Esperanza addresses those gathered at the forum. Photo by author.

The goal stated by Esperanza, reaching a quality of at least 80 points, is significant because 80 is the minimum score, out of 100, that a coffee must earn in order to be considered specialty grade, and it is specialty coffees that earn top dollar. Some in the industry believed that high quality coffee demanded technologically advanced agronomy and bureaucratic management–a carryover from the rise of scientific positivism and the industrialization of agriculture. Esperanza and millions of other small producers around the world have been proving them wrong for decades.

Yet, despite the market access that the fair trade system granted to small producers, and the improved income and quality of life that has followed, research has shown that producers under the fair trade system continue to face serious daily struggles. Back in 2007 sociologist Daniel Jaffee published his oft-cited book Brewing Justice: Fair Trade Coffee, Sustainability and Survival, in which he revealed that the economic benefit of fair trade is marginal at best. Last year, anthropologist Sarah Lyon published a similarly focused book titled, Coffee and Community: Maya Farmers and Fair Trade Markets, in which she reveals through an in-depth ethnographic study that despite its best efforts, fair trade has not equalized power relations between producers and buyers.

Small producers and their advocates know the extent of daily struggles fair trade producers continue to face all too well. Panelist Monika Firl spoke about the disconnect between coffee quality and quality of life of producers at the forum:

“The vast majority of them lack access to water, to basic education, to housing, and all too often, to adequate food on their table. And add to that mix that most coffee producing countries have economic policies that favor and incentivize large scale production and traders, thus leaving small scale farmers to struggle for their market access on a very uneven playing field, and left to compete without access to adequate credit, inputs, or technology. Just to give a current example, one of the top 10 coffees today in the coffee of the year competition comes from Fondo Paez, a very small organization, they are now top 5. Those farmers today are hungry. They are suffering violence from political assassination of their leaders, and they are doing everything they can just to stay together as an organization while national policies are trying to pull them apart.”

During the Q&A portion of the forum Nelson Melo, a Colombian who works with CLAC, verified Monika’s statement: “I want to thank Monika for what she mentioned about Fondo Paez because what she said is happening in Colombia is the truth. They are killing our indigenous leaders and they are not giving us the institutional support.” He went on to demonstrate how this physical and structural violence has impacted participation in the fair trade system: “In the first fair trade event [at SCAA] there were about 30 of us that were from Colombia. I ask those here from Colombia to raise their hands. There are six representatives of small producers [here today].”

Monika and Nelson point out that despite gains in the fair trade movement over the last twenty-five years, small producers still face an onslaught of challenges–big, small, and life-threatening–on a daily basis. The fair trade movement is under attack from neoliberal development and trade policies that favor large plantations and transnational corporations, from mercenaries working to advance a neoliberal state agenda in producing nations, and now, from one of the very organizations that purports to steward the movement (FTUSA). In these conditions access to the global market under fair trade terms is far from guaranteed to producers, which means there is still important work to be done to equalize market access, to pay farmers truly fair prices for their products, and to ensure the sustainability of producing communities.

Part of what has made equality difficult to achieve is the exclusion of small producers from trade negotiations, even within the fair trade movement. As we pointed out in our previous post on this topic, FTUSA was able to amend their rules of trade to the disadvantage of small producers, and to the advantage of large buyers and transnational coffee companies, because producers have very little say in the decision making process, whereas FTI gives them a fifty percent stake. Forum panelist Rudi Dalvi, of CTM AltroMercato in Italy, spoke of the work that has been done to increase the stake that small producers hold in fair trade organizations:

“There was an important moment for WFTO (World Fair Trade Organization), which was in 1991, when WFTO opened up to producer organizations. Now two-thirds of the WFTO are producer organizations. I say this was an important moment because this was the moment when we started to discuss criteria of fair trade together, so it was not just a north-south relation, but it was an equal relation. The CLAC is one example for how SPOs can get organized [together]. There is exchange between south[ern] organizations now, and we have fair trade which is fairer than it was before, because it is really involving all stakeholders, from the producers, to the traders, to the retailers. I think this is really the positive development… in fair trade.”

Panelist Rob Everts of Equal Exchange, spoke of this issue too:

“Small farmers literally have a seat at the table in the specialty coffee industry. Just witness how that is manifested at this show every year. We have made huge progress in coffee, but we are barely getting into the conversation in other products, such as cacao, tea, bananas. That is one reason why the introduction of plantations poses such a threat. For sure, in coffee, but think of those other crops where small farmers still have very little access to the market.”

Everts points out that including large scale plantations in the model gives them, and large buyers, more decision-making power in how the model operates, and ultimately reassigns the beneficiaries of this trading structure. Including plantations in the FTUSA certification is thus a dangerous precedent because when governance of fair trade organizations does not adequately reflect the interests of small producers, trading policies often work to their detriment. Scholarly research conducted into the impact of certification systems on producers and their communities has found that there is often a severe disconnect between intentions and outcomes when those affected by the policies are not a part of policy creation.

Fearing that fair trade will proceed down a path that is not responsive to the needs and goals of small producers, Nelson Melo said during the Q&A:

“I think we are in a really important space right now, and I want to ask us to revise our criteria and apply ourselves so that we can really build and strengthen ourselves. I want to propose also that as we rework our criteria, and our revisions of certifications, that we keep in mind the realities of the producers, because oftentimes when they are trying to help or support us, it ends up being more pressure and more work for the producers.”

At the forum it was clear that small producers are grateful for the support and infrastructure that the fair trade movement has provided for them, and for what it has helped them to achieve for themselves and their communities. Because they understand the tangible economic and social benefits of working within this system, they are committed to preserving the core values of solidarity and access upon which the movement was founded. All in attendance exhibited a spirit of hope around what the movement can continue to do.

Some producers pointed out that they are not against increased participation by big industry players. In fact, they welcome the increased market access that large buyers provide. But they emphasize that the inclusion of the industry must be brokered in a way that preserves the movement’s core values. This message was communicated during the Q&A by Roberto Gutierrez Guzman of Cooperative Mahmud in Chiapas, Mexico. He said:

“I represent 940 producers that are 100 percent indigenous. I am a coffee farmer, and I am very happy to be here with all of you, with a diverse group of people of roasters and buyers. But, I am worried about the situation that is happening. As a cooperative we have been organized for 30 years and we have been working in the fair trade market for 18 years. When we entered in 1994, this was a different market for us than the one we were living in at that time. We are worried about these changes, and we are not against the industry, but we want to prove that we, as [small] producers, can provide all that is demanded. I invite all of you and ask that we stay true to the principles of fair trade, so that we don’t get off track, and that together, united, we can continue to build fair trade.”

Merling Preza of Prodecoop and CLAC expressed similar sentiments during her panel statement, when she said, “We’re not against other industries entering into the fair trade system. We believe that it is positive for us, that the industry enters into the fair trade system. But we do believe that it should be an advantage to the small producers, because there are still thousands and thousands of producers that cannot access the market. Fair trade should revolutionize, it should grow. But it should maintain its values and principles.”

Preza’s statement elicited loud cheers and applause from those gathered, because they recognize that the work is not yet done, and they agree that focus must remain on small producers. Monika Firl of Cooperative Coffees spoke of this too in her statement. She said:

“We should remind ourselves that purchasing coffee at fair trade prices is only the first step in a very long road. The transformative work has only just begun in farmer communities, and the possibility for that work to continue depends on our collective capacity to support locally based farmer organizations.”

Symbol representing products made by small producers.

One of the immediate steps that small producers and their supporters are taking to preserve this focus is the introduction of a label that lets the consumer know that the coffee therein came from an SPO. This label has been in the making since 2006, when it was conceived by small producers in Oaxaca, Mexico. Martin Lopez of Fundepo pointed out during the Q&A that it is important to differentiate the products of small farmers from that of plantations, given these recent changes at FTUSA.

Resonating with global efforts to label GMO (genetically modified organism) food to raise awareness of this growing problem, and to give consumers the option of choosing to avoid it, Naji Harb of the Brazilian Fair Trade Association said during the Q&A:

“I think they [large coffee companies] should be very straight forward with the consumers, and perhaps what they should do is put on the fair trade label that they are going to use that it is produced by plantations, and not by small producers… We hope that we can keep working together with licensees, traders, consumers, and organizations to make sure that we maintain that whole beautiful story that we’ve always told the consumer, that you’re getting a product from small producers.”

This statement, though delivered in a tongue in cheek way, has merit. Honest labeling in the agricultural sector, particularly when the long-standing meaning of a label has been muddied by organizational change, is important. This statement reflects the deep concern over consumer ignorance and confusion that will stem from the changed meaning of the FTUSA symbol, which is a well-founded concern. In research I conducted into consumer knowledge of ethical sourcing models I found that the vast majority have only vague, surface level knowledge of what a label means, and also, that they do not understand the differences between models (fair trade, organic, bird-friendly, Rainforest Alliance, etc.). Rather, they conflate all of them into a general impression of goodness. This is dangerous when there are real and consequential differences among them, as there are more so now than ever.

Fairtrade International and Fairtrade Canada (FTC) are taking steps to combat the problems that will play out in the US consumer market following this change at FTUSA. In an effort to ensure that consumers can continue to find certified coffee that comes specifically from small producers, and not plantations, the two organizations have been working together to distribute coffee certified by FTI and licensed by FTC in the US market since January 1 of this year. Tia Loftsgard, Director of Business Development for FTC, announced during the Q&A that the two organizations are in the process of working with stakeholders throughout the movement and specialty industry to create a licensing body for Fairtrade International certified coffee within the US.

You can trust this symbol to mean your coffee came from small producers.

Leaving this forum, I was heartened to see that fair trade is far from dead. Despite efforts to pollute its values by FTUSA, the commitment, energy, hope, and collective action demonstrated at this event made me confident that the movement will carry on, perhaps even more vehemently now that it is forced to defend what it stands for. But, for the movement to continue to grow and facilitate positive change for small producers, consumers must be aware of it, and support it through their choices. Purchasing coffee certified by FTI, and avoiding that of FTUSA is one way to do this. Purchasing that which bears the symbol of small producers is a guarantee that the premium you pay for fair trade coffee is not channelled to plantation owners.

In closing, I leave you with the words of Esperanza, of Pangoa in Peru: “As organized cooperatives we are going to continue with the principles of fair trade. It will be the consumers and the buyers that will choose us and stand with us, as we stand with the symbol of small producers.”

Readers who want to continue to follow this issue should visit the Fair World Project on occasion, or get a copy of their magazine, For a Better World.

Editor’s note: The original version of this post misstated the findings of a study conducted by GlobeScan on behalf of Fairtrade International. This was brought to our attention by FTI through their comment found below. The post was edited to remove the incorrect information.


10 thoughts on “The Battle for Fair Trade Rages On”

  1. Thanks for the article and the ongoing coverage of this topic.

    Just one correction, it’s important to note that the label studied in the USA in the Globescan research of 2011 was the Fair Trade USA label. That means that recognition of the label used by our then-member organization, FTUSA, was the fifth lowest among members of Fairtrade International.

    Actually because of global recognition and trust in the international FAIRTRADE Mark, research has shown a halo effect in the USA, and recognition of the international Mark in the USA is close behind that of the FTUSA Mark.

    This global recognition is the result of the hard work of producers, businesses and consumers that understand what the international Fairtrade Mark stands for. We are proud of the producer voice in the international system (with significant representation on our Board of Directors, Standards Committee and the Fairtrade General Assembly).

    And while there is always room for improvement in how the international Fairtrade system moves forward, we’re confident that the involvement of producer representatives – and all stakeholders – is key to making lasting change.

    Traders, brands, retailers and others interested in using the international FAIRTRADE Mark on their products in the USA can learn more at

    1. Thank you so much for reading, and for this important clarification. Because this study was listed on one of your organization’s information sheets, I assumed it referred to the FTI mark. My mistake! I will edit the post accordingly. Does this mean that the study measured all nationally specific licensed fair trade certification symbols?

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