On November 29, 2012, the Nomad, in her role as Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology, participated in a panel discussion titled “Ethics and Labels: Considering Consumer Activism” hosted by the Pomona Student Union at Pomona College. Other panelists included Mayra Orellana-Powell, owner of Catracha Coffee; Matt Warning, Professor of Economics at University of Puget Sound; and Mike Perry, owner and roastmaster of Klatch Coffee. The panel was moderated by Charlotte Dohrn, a student at Pomona College.
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.
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.
Since 1999 Fair Trade USA, formerly TransFair USA, has brought Fair Trade certified coffee to the U.S. market. The organization, which manages the licensing and distribution of products in the U.S., introduced millions of consumers to the principles of Fair Trade. They did so primarily through coffee, which accounts for over seventy percent of the American Fair Trade market. Through product branding and advertising campaigns, even an award-winning documentary film, people in the U.S. have come to associate the Fair Trade label with democratically organized farming cooperatives, a minimum price that on average is higher than the price per pound paid on the open market, and social, economic, and environmental initiatives in producing communities. But, in January, 2012, Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) changed the rules dramatically. While they continue to market the small-scale farmer and the cooperative as the face of the brand, the base of it now is transnational corporations and large-scale plantations. So much for the little guy.
As I walked the streets of Amsterdam in late September of 2011, I sensed the oldness of the place all around me. As an American, I often find myself awestruck by the visible age of European cities. In terms of the built environment, the United States is a young place. I grew up in New Hampshire, one of the original thirteen British colonies, and have seen my fair share of old New England. I have eaten at “America’s Oldest Restaurant,” The Union Oyster House (established in Boston, Massachusetts in 1826), and have taken care of business in one of the nation’s oldest plumbed indoor toilets, at Harvard University. But, there is something different about Amsterdam, a city that was founded around 1300. Its oldness, and all that represents, is on the surface, looking back at you, as you look at it. Maybe it’s the distinctive and uniform architecture of the original brick buildings that line the city, or they way they tip toward and away from its streets, and slant sideways, due to their slow sinking. Maybe it’s the canals, which remind me of the role of waterways and seafaring in the building of the Dutch empire.