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While shopping for coffee, you may notice that on some of the beans you will see a Fair Trade stamp on the bag. Many coffee buffs specifically look for this label when shopping for coffee. But what does it mean and who determines if something is fair or not fair?
Fair Trade USA is a non-profit organization that certifies certain goods such as coffee, chocolate and much more based on a set of very strict standards on how it is produced and prepared for sale. These standards encourage environmental sustainability and ensure that the people who performed the work to prepare the coffee are treated fairly and compensated as they should be. While this sounds like a good idea, there are many critics that say the Fair Trade certification isn’t what it used to be.
A History Lesson
The Fair Trade organization and certification grew from a grassroots movement designed to promote goods from small, independent producers around the world. While the organization itself was originally founded in Germany back in 1997, the movement towards these products began as far back as the 19th century. In the United States, people began boycotting goods made with slave labor.
Fast forward to the aftermath of World War II and you will see that it was then that many consumers across Europe began to demand better sustainability and traceability of the imported products they purchased. It was in this climate that finally led to the establishment of Fairtrade International in Germany in 1997. This organization brought together different global initiatives under one roof by establishing international standards for fair trade.
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How It Works
In order to get Fair Trade certified, coffee farms must join one of several member-led co-operatives. There are only 360 or these organizations across the world, with most of them existing in Latin America. By joining these co-ops, the farmers have to demonstrate their methods for production and disclose how they compensate their workers and keep them safe while they are on the job.
Early on in the organizations, the fair trade label used to mean more about who you bought your coffee from and how much you paid for the coffee, as prices were controlled and managed to ensure the financial safety for farmers and, in turn, their workers.
“The original recipe for fair trade was about who you bought from, the price you paid — there was a price floor to protect the farmer from boom-and-bust cycles, like a minimum wage guarantee — and availability of affordable credit for maintaining and improving the farms,” says Rodney North, a spokesman for Equal Exchange, the oldest fair trade coffee company in the country.
Benefits of Fair Trade
Any goods such as coffee that include the Fair Trade Certified label means that a third-party has guaranteed the production and price of the coffee. This obviously leads to at least a belief that the coffee you receive with this seal is of better quality, although some one debate that fact.
The biggest benefit is, of course, what it does for the farmers. The label guarantees the farmer a place at the large table that is the global market by helping them obtain long-term contracts from buyers across the world for their products. This results in lifting the farming families producing the coffee we love from poverty through trade, instead of just giving them aid. This results in a better quality of life for the farmers as they can continue to put food on the tablet and educate their children.
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Disagreements and Criticisms
Over the years, groups in different regions have developed rifts and differences of opinions on how to operate the Fair Trade labels. In 2011, the U.S. branch of Fair Trade broke from the parent organization because of philosophical differences over big coffee plantations. The U.S. branch believed that these large producers should be able to be certified just like the small coffee farmers saying it was the key to move forward.
Critics of the U.S. branch responded by saying that the U.S. branch was abandoning the small farmers that helped create it by bowing to pressure from big corporations.
“A big part of the rift in the fair trade movement has been over Fair Trade USA’s unilateral decision to change the rules and launch what they call Fair Trade for All. They’re now willing to certify not only the farmer co-ops, but the big plantations the co-ops compete against,” says North.
“What we and other fair trade pioneers are saying is the farmer co-ops helped created the fair trade concept. It is not for northern groups to change that,” says North. “Big coffee plantations already have all the advantages in the marketplace. Fair Trade was designed to change the market to make it work for farmers. Now, Fair Trade is being changed to make it work for corporations.”
Farmers Avoiding Certification
Today, some farmers are completely avoiding the certification altogether simply because of the disagreements between the organizations. These farmers could be certified as they meet all the standards set forth by the organizations but choose not to because of the hassle. These farmers do this by using a direct-trade solution. However, often these farmers are larger than some of the smallest farmers that have no other choice but to join one of these organizations.
Many coffee producers today understand that in order to obtain and sell good coffee, they must pay their farmers well. “One thing I do know is that it’s not possible to get great coffee without paying more money to farmers,” says Ed Kaufmann, head roaster and coffee buyer at Joe the Art of Coffee.
Both big companies and small companies recognize the need to pay a fair price for good coffee and understand the benefits of an environmentally friendly method of production. In the end, though, this can lead to even more confusion as this potentially great coffee won’t come with the certification on the side of the bag that you may be looking for when you head to your local coffee shop to pick up a bag of your favorite coffee.
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What This Means for Coffee Lovers
So where does this leave you, the coffee drinker? First, I am pretty sure you are confused. With the disagreements over the years and the split in the organization, do you really need to bother with Fair Trade anymore? With so many different certifications, consumers often find it difficult to distinguish between them and the various rules and production methods used by each different certification.
What this means is that you, as the coffee buyer, have to pay closer attention to what you buy. If you truly want to purchase coffee with the Fair Trade label, you need to make sure it is the correct one. If you like the idea of purchasing coffee from small farmers across the world then you must look for the international organization’s seal on the coffee.
If, on the other hand, you are more interested in the guarantees it provides all workers and farmers regardless of their size and where they happen to be located, then you can look for the U.S. label instead. Ultimately, no matter which seal you choose, your coffee will taste a great deal better than some of the brand name coffee you will find in your grocery store.
However, if you are picky about where your coffee was grown and who grew it, then you may want to do the little bit of extra homework you need to do by choosing a coffee with the Fair Trade label stamped on the side of the bag.
Fair Trade coffee was created with a noble mission – to help farmers and their families, and the organization still upholds this mission each and every day. Over the years, different segments of the organization have broken off to create their own certifications. Each of these certifications are based on their own set of philosophies and, while there is much overlap, there are distinct differences.
While the reputation of Fair Trade has been somewhat eroded in recent years because of these disagreements and the inclusion of many big corporate coffee producers, the label still means something. When you purchase Fair Trade coffee, you know that is from farmers who use farming methods that are better for the environment, and you know that they treat and pay their workers a fair wage for their work.
So if you care about where your coffee was grown and how it was produced, seeking a coffee to drink with the Fair Trade label is definitely the way to go. Just be careful you choose the right Fair Trade label based on your beliefs. If you don’t, you could end up drinking coffee that was produced using methods that you may find objectionable.
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