“I have one chance at a career, and I want one with an impact for people that I really care about.”
Emilie Dubois is destined to be a change-maker. Driven by her working class roots and experience growing up in the post-industrial community of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, she is revolutionizing how sociologists approach and understand the phenomenon of “connected consumption.”
Emilie, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Boston College who works closely with Juliet Schor, was driven to our field by class inequities. She took her first sociology class at Columbia University while working in admissions at Columbia Business School. Appalled by the directive to give preference to wealthy candidates, Emilie sought conceptual tools to help her understand the situation she found herself in. She enrolled in “Power and Politics in Organizations,” experienced in her words a “massive consciousness shift,” quit her job, and applied to graduate programs in sociology.
Now, Emilie is in the midst of her dissertation research and works on Schor’s research team for the MacArthur Foundation’sConnected Learning Research Network. The team is studying the phenomenon of “connected consumption,” which Emilie explains is a new system of exchange premised on “economic connections that are not mediated by an organization in a demonstrative way.”
I was raised in a liberal, progressive community, and my parents and friends were aware of the issues surrounding globalization. My family shopped primarily Fair Trade when possible, bought produce from the CSA farm right next door, and my mom even took part in the Seattle WTO protests when I was young. Yet, while I was very familiar with the Fair Trade logo, I didn’t actually understand what fair trade was: I didn’t look past the label.
My lack of real understanding of an alter-globalization movement prompted me to study Fair Trade and more personally, my role as a consumer of ethical products. I wanted to understand what fair trade really means, and I was curious if other people too had only a surface understanding of the movement. In my research, conducted for the class Sociology of Globalization taught by Dr. Nicki Lisa Cole at Pomona College last spring, I found that this was largely the case. Most people knew that Fair Trade was “fair”, “ethical”, perhaps that it “guaranteed farmers a living wage.” But, few people had any deeper knowledge of the fair trade movement or the many Fair Trade organizations that compose it.
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.