The Battle for Fair Trade

In the last year and a half, "Fair Trade" has been through the ringer. The battle between the loyal purists and the gung-ho "expansionists" have dominated all of the recent press about the movement. In general, we tend to welcome growth with the understanding that growth, if it is to remain sustainable and congruent with the movement/organization/business's core values, must be guided and "pruned". When one loud voice (the gung-ho expansionists) that is contrary to the movement's other voices starts to dominate the discourse and direction, growth is inevitably skewed to meet the vision of the loudest (or the one with the marketing dollars in this case).

Months ago, Fair Trade USA (the group responsible for certifying Fair Trade in the US) made a brash and unilateral decision to split from its international network of fair traders by resigning from FLO (the international policy-making body of fair trade who is also responsible for certifying farms all over the world). They have been brazen, relentless, and unwavering about their new position which will allow plantation-style farming into the fair trade fold.

Currently (and historically), around 85% of the coffee farms in the world are maintained by vastly underprivileged and underappreciated small-scale farmers who form cooperatives to gain access to markets where they can sell their coffee. Equator, along with a whole slew of other fair trade activists and practitioners, joined the movement for the sake of improving the livelihoods of these farmers. If plantations enter the equation as FTUSA (and their money-backing licensees e.g. Starbucks) wants them too, the efforts of the small-scale farmer and the small-scale roaster will be completely undermined. Not only will plantation coffee skew the supply for fair trade coffee, it will signify a sanctioning of the plantation model by the movement - something none of its founders or followers have ever condoned. Undoubtedly, the needs of workers on these plantations need to be addressed - fairer standards need to be created and enforced; plantation owners need to be held accountable to ILO standards. However, fair trade is not the place to do that.

Fair trade came into existence to provide a forum and market for the small-scale farmer. It demands a model of trade that fosters a communal and cooperative system of production. If that model is forced to embrace plantation-style production in order to satiate the needs of large-scale coffee roasting operations, fair trade will morph into something drastically different from what it currently is.

Working towards a global system that is inherently contrary to profit-hungry markets has always been an uphill battle. Who knew that an alternative trade model would have to battle with its own (supposed) adherents just to remain true to its name? Let's hope for the sake of the movement's integrity and the well-being of small-scale farmers all over the world, that fair trade continues to be an alternative and not just a euphemism.

Check out this inspiring article by our fellow fair trade roaster, Just Coffee (Madison, WI, USA)

For more information about the current struggles in fair trade, see Fair World Project's website.