I had the privilege of interviewing Dean from Dean's Beans Coffee [located in Orange, MA] about the future of fair trade. Dean is passionate (and I mean passionate!) about fair trade standards being upheld. He is also very transparent with his own standards, putting his fair trade audit right on his website. As a consumer, I caught on to Dean's advocacy about this subject and was intrigued to ask more questions. He was kind enough to help me understand it more.
What exactly does Fair Trade mean?
Fair trade was originally conceived in Europe in the mid 1980’s as an alternative to the international commodity trading system that kept farmers in poverty all across the globe. It became formalized in the late 1990’s and has been adopted on every continent through the work of the Fairtrade Labeling Organizations (FLO) through their national licensing initiatives. In the USA, the licensee was Transfair USA, which has just changed its name to Fair Trade USA. The rules of fair trade provide minimum pricing when the market goes below a living wage, a premium when the market is above that minimum, pre-harvest financing to help farmers through the lean months before the harvest, and helps the small farmers organize democratic, transparent cooperatives through which to sell their products directly in international trade. The big problem right now is that Transfair USA just resigned their license with FLO and is going it alone, which will allow it to make up its own rules for fair trade (and what they have revealed so far is a terrible blow to two decades of success for the fair trade movement).
Is there a difference between Fair Trade and Fair Trade Certified?
Yes! Fair trade is an international movement to bring social justice into the unfair world trading systems. Fair Trade Certified is the trademarked stamp that Transfair USA uses to demonstrate that a product (not a company!) is certified to have been purchased in accordance with the international rules. From the beginnings of Transfair back in the late 1990’s, there has been a tension between the movement types who want to continually raise the bar on fair trade and force large corporations to increase their participation, and Transfair’s approach of accommodating the large corporation by constantly changing the rules around the use of the term and logo of Fair Trade Certified. For example, in the past, the logo could only be used on a product that contained 100% fair trade ingredients. The logo could not be used generically on advertising, on delivery vans, etc, so that the consumers would not be confused about what the logo represented. But somehow that mysteriously changed as large companies got involved. Now you can see the logo everywhere, which gives the impression that Green Mountain and Starbucks, for example, are 100% fair trade, which they are clearly not. Additionally, Transfair just changed the rules to allow plantations to participate in coffee fair trade, which is contrary to the rules, contrary to the express decisions of the farmer groups and totally confusing for consumers. It also has changed the logo use rules, so that you can use the logo on a product as long as it contains at least fifty percent fair trade ingredients, not 100%. That leads to the possibility of a hot cocoa product, for example, being made with child labor or slave cocoa that is obviously not fair trade, as long as the sugar and other ingredients are fair trade. What a disaster!
What does the future hold for Fair Trade? Specifically the standards of Fair Trade changing?
We are entering a period of real confusion for the consumer and a blunting of the transformative power of fair trade. I predict that with a year or so several of the big companies, specifically Green Mountain and Starbucks, will claim to be 100% fair trade and have the logo to prove it – not because they have changed their business practices, but because Transfair has lowered the bar and changed the rules to accommodate their biggest clients (they pay a license fee to Transfair for every pound of fair trade sold).
Is there a certain visual stamp we can look for on products to know that we're purchasing authentic Fair Trade?
This is the biggest issue on the table right now, and the international fair trade community is scrambling to respond most effectively and with the most integrity. The credibility of the Transfair/Fair Trade USA logo is going down the tubes and all of us serious fair traders have already abandoned the seal and resigned from Transfair. There are a few other labels for fair trade out there which should become more prominent, such as Transfair Canada (the Caandian licensee of FLO) which may start licensing US fair traders in place of the now defunct (at least morally) Transfair USA. Fair Trade Federation (FTF) does not certify products, but the organization is limited to peer-reviewed members who are 100% fair trade, so membership in FTF is a great way to trust a brand. A new label, Fair For Life, is coming out as well, but will take a while to get known. Several responsible companies, ours included, are relying on independent audits of our trade practices, with both the practices and the audits made publicly available. At the end of the day, the consumer will have to do some research and trust the brand, not the logo being used.
What can our response be? Specifically during the holiday season?
It is tough to ask consumers to do the research, especially around the craziness of the holidays. The whole point of labels, seals and logos was to do the work for you, but the powers that be capture those labels pretty quickly and manipulate the public with misleading claims or appearances. There are some really committed companies out there. In the world of coffee, I have faith in Equal Exchange, our own brand (obviously!), any of the twenty six roaster members of Cooperative Coffees in the USA and Canada, and some small local roasters who can’t go to source and participate in social change the way we do but are honest in their purchases and their representations. Unfortunately, it is time to wake up and smell the coffee!
So PEC readers, what's the take home message? For me, it's that the standards are changing. Just because the ingredients are fair trade certified, it doesn't mean that the labor going into it is. Research the companies you are buying from to make sure they are truly practicing fair trade and not just using the stamp as a marketing tool.
Shameless plug for Dean's Beans - my husband and I have been avid Dean's Beans coffee drinkers for years because the quality and taste is near perfect. Our favorite blend is called Ahab's Revenge and it comes from East Timor. Stay tuned for a giveaway of a pound of a different blend from East Timor!