Whether or not to allow plantations into the fair trade model is not the only debate raging within the specialty coffee industry. Another, and more wide-reaching debate, is whether certification schemes benefit producers, or if they are in fact barriers to trade. While millions of small-scale coffee producers have benefitted from certification systems like Fair Trade, Organic, Bird Friendly, and Rainforest Alliance over the last twenty years, they have not done so without critique and resistance. Drawing from conversations I have had recently with producers, cooperative administrators, exporters, roasters and distributors, this post addresses the dark, untold stories of certified production and trade.
A guest post by Courtney E. Miller
“A diamond is a girl’s best friend.” Or is it? The exceptionally hard, brilliant stone has been portrayed in movies and advertisements as the object of many a girl’s fantasy. Women in the US and increasingly around the world are told by the media to expect nothing less than a diamond ring as a token of engagement, and the message seems to work. In 2007, global diamond jewelry sales reached more than US $70 billion. But this symbol of eternal love has been tainted by the existence of bloody conflicts in African countries fueled by the global diamond trade. In 2002, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) was established to reduce such conflicts, and to ensure that globally traded diamonds come strictly from “conflict-free” areas. Recently, significant criticisms of the KPCS have brought its effectiveness into question.
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.