…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
The Fair Trade Coffee Conundrum: Sure, it Tastes Good, But Does it Do Good?
Categories: Company profiles, Copy

by Meg White

Over the past couple of decades, Americans have finally begun to seek out good coffee. As Folgers receded, Starbucks transcended. Yet while our coffee was once notoriously bad-tasting, today an American cuppa Joe has gotten a second bad reputation: It leaves a bad taste in the mouth of those who care about social justice and the environment.

Most coffee on the market today is unsustainable in that it is grown in stripped, pesticide-soaked rainforest and picked by often mistreated workers in exchange for slave wages. The thing is, some beans produced this way can still say “fair trade” on the label.

Knowing that those who care about such things happen to make up the bulk of our readership, BuzzFlash decided explore what we drink in the morning. Sure, it tastes good. It even sounds good. But does it do good?

While coffee wasn’t the first item we sold in the BuzzFlash Progressive Marketplace, it was a natural jump from progressive books touting fair trade, environmentally-friendly principles to a beverage that is actually made with said principles in production.

Nowadays, BuzzFlash sells coffee from a number of different fair trade-certified producers. I spoke with representatives of two of them — Just Coffee out of Madison, WI and Equal Exchange from Massachusetts — to get a better idea of fair trade behind all the fancy stamps and stickers on bean bags these days.

They’re both quite different companies, but they each have ties to some pretty radical roots. For example, one of the first co-ops that Just Coffee partnered with is called Santa Anita. The entire co-op is made up of 32 family farmers who are ex-guerrillas from the 30-year civil war in Guatemala. I asked Mike Miller, a worker-owner at the Just Coffee co-op who manages cafe sales and producer relations, if that partnership had cost them as a company.

“I’m absolutely positive there are people who don’t buy from us because of that very reason,” Miller said. Then again, most of their customers (a term Miller objects to because “it just seems to dirty” to him; he prefers “supporters” or “friends”) end up on the left end of the political spectrum anyway, so few are bothered with the idea of giving former guerrillas another chance. “I doubt we sell to that many Republicans,” he laughed.

Equal Exchange started out in fair trade before there was even really a name for it. Though he’s a bit newer to the business, Equal Exchange’s “answer man,” Rodney North, told me about some of the difficulties of being one of the first American companies to bring fair trade coffee to the public back during the Reagan Administration.

“In the 1980s, there was no fair trade market,” North said. “People just weren’t asking, “Who grew my food?” …They were hardly asking environmental questions, much less social questions.”

The story of Equal Exchanges’ very first product — coffee from Nicaragua — is indicative of their desire to change the world we live, eat and drink in. In their words:

In 1986, the Reagan administration imposed an embargo on all products from Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Importing coffee beans from Nicaragua would demonstrate solidarity with the fledgling people’s movement and would challenge U.S. trade policies.

Equal Exchange brought Nicaraguan coffee into the U.S. through a loophole in the law. If the coffee was roasted in another country, it could be regarded as a product from that country, and therefore legally imported into the U.S. A friendly Dutch alternative trade organization stepped forward to offer assistance with the brokering and roasting.

Alerted to this symbolic action, the Reagan administration tried to stop the tiny organization. Officials seized Equal Exchange’s Nicaraguan coffee as soon as it arrived in the port of Boston. During their first two years of business, the founders spent many days, with trade lawyers at their side, doing battle with customs officials. Each time the coffee cargo was released it was a small victory.

When in 1988 the Reagan Administration threatened to close the loophole, Equal Exchange went into battle mode.

“It came very close to shutting us down, and it forced us to become much more political than we already were,” North explained. He said at first Equal Exchange wasn’t focused on the traditional worries of a start-up business. “The test at hand was fighting basically the State Department… as a fledgling company.”

Needless to say, being a fair trade coffee importer is easier than it used to be. The Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International sets the “FLO” price for many products, providing a baseline of what importers and retailers should pay in order to be able to boast having paid a “fair” price. In the first ten years, the baseline pay for a pound of coffee didn’t go up one cent, but the price a pound of fair trade coffee was certainly not stagnant.

“Now it’s great for them to sign up for fair trade,” said Miller of the large coffee retailers. “Most of the value-added money is in this country… and that does not work for the growers, in my opinion.”

Big American companies have been able to make an increasing profit on a pound of coffee by selling it at the same price over a decade. Miller notes that two years ago “they raised [the FLO rate] by a nickel,” but that doesn’t come close enough to meeting farmers’ needs. That’s why Just Coffee pays around 50 cents a pound more than the FLO rate.

“We’re trying to shift away from that fair trade minimum by setting our minimum,” Miller said. But he conceded that just paying more isn’t enough. As a worker-owned co-op, Just Coffee will only do business with a farmer co-op that is a “democratically-run organization with representation.”

Now multinational corporations — even the ones that have built their dominance largely thanks to a pattern of exploitation of land and local workers — are pursuing fair trade status. Equal Exchange’s blog, Small Farmers Big Change, documents a recent internal struggle over what to do about the decision of Transfair USA, a fair trade certification group that Equal Exchange has worked with in the past, to certify Dole bananas as fair trade:

Should we lead a campaign to protest Transfair USA’s decision giving Fair Trade certification to Dole bananas? Perhaps. If we did this, would we be accused of being opportunistic since we have our own brand of Fair Trade bananas we feel far better about? Maybe. Will some say drawing attention to these controversies will confuse consumers, divide “the movement?” Absolutely.

…We took stock and decided to stay the course and remain true to our mission. Perhaps we won’t be leading a campaign against Dole or spending our energy trying to transform Transfair. But that won’t stop us from sharing our perspectives, even if that makes some uncomfortable.

North told me Equal Exchange has misgivings about other, less stringent social/environmental certifiers such as Rainforest Alliance and Utz.

Just Coffee also has problems with the latitude offered by some certifiers. They’re not certified by Transfair USA, and they have misgivings about the rate-setting process at Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International.

“This is the problem with certification… it’s keeping people from having to be transparent,” Miller said. “FLO is trying to squeeze out small farmers [because] it’s easier for FLO to certify 10,000 farmers” at once.

Preferences for certified organic coffee also pushes out small producers, according to the two men. The majority of beans from both Just Coffee and Equal Exchange are organic, but neither company wishes to make organic certification a requirement. Miller told me that Just Coffee tries to raise the price of its organic-certified beans to pass some of the cost — around $3,000 each time — onto consumers.

“We’re always looking for organic farmers,” North told me. “But we’re not going to cut loose these people we’ve been working with since the 1990s” just because organic certification isn’t tenable for them.

But that doesn’t let them off the hook of the expense of obtaining fair trade certification.

“We think certification is a good thing, that consumers should have a third party certifying that a product is what it claims to be,” said North, adding that “the ‘just trust me’ approach” doesn’t work.

Just Coffee’s frustration with the “believe us, it’s fair trade” approach arguably goes even further. They publish all of their producer contracts online, as well as all of their own salaries. Miller told me that if he could do just one thing to level the playing field, it would be to require more transparency.

“The Starbucks, the Coca Colas of the world… they don’t have to share with us” how they do business, Miller said. “Without complete transparency, democracy cannot exist.”

Just Coffee’s transparency efforts extend to face-to-face interaction. They visit the farmers they work with all around the world in delegations, bringing customers, coffee lovers and anyone else who’s interested along with them.

Equal Exchange has an interesting twist on the on-the-ground concept, partnering with religious groups to form interfaith delegations during picking season so that participants can learn directly from farmers what it takes to get a pound of coffee to market.

In the end, maintaining these long-term relationships with farmers in co-ops from around the world may be the most important difference between these two coffee co-ops and the hundreds of other coffee importers bearing the stickers of fair trade certification. After all, even companies that assert they practice “direct trade” can’t necessarily be trusted because they could quite easily be paying those “fair wages” to plantations, not farmers.

But if there’s one thing I learned from these two co-ops, it’s that an innumerable amount of information and experiences go into determining if a pound of coffee actually is as good as it tastes. And that’s why, here at BuzzFlash, we seek out companies such as Equal Exchange and Just Coffee, which spend their days trying to parse out what “fair” means in this globalized world.


Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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