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The Fair Trade Ideal: The Ultimate Answer For Sustainability?


In this second installment of his series on the current coffee crisis, Donald Schoenholt writes on fair trade programs, their impact on coffee producers, and their relationship with the specialty coffee industry from the perspective of a specialty coffee retailer.

Fair Trade Foremost to every roaster and retailer, worth his salt, is the quality of the cup. Alfred Peet told us years ago, “It’s all in the cup.” If the cup quality isn’t there the rest is mud. A guaranteed premium price without a guaranteed premium cup is not sustainable. Part of today’s confusion among the trade about Fair Trade is that instead of adding sustainability to the quality equation after the primary taste component, some of the organizations representing sustainable and fair traded coffees are substituting their imprimatur for cup quality.

Fair-traded coffee is a laudable idea, but Fair Trade is an imperfect specialty coffee idea. The fair-traders focus on the most economically fragile farmers, bringing them into cooperatives and ultimately helping them to receive a guaranteed minimum price for their Fair Trade coffee currently US$ 1.26 lb. or over 225% the current value of the NYC "C".

The idea is to break the generational cycle of poverty by which coffee workers must live. In the free trade coffee world today, much of this coffee would earn a discounted price against the traded standard quality at New York. The fair-traders work to get a higher minimum subsistence price for the farmer than that which his produce would otherwise bring. It is a laudable goal. It is, unfortunately, often not laudable coffee. And it is in the details of the difference that the devil dances.

Transfair, Global Exchange, Fair Exchange and others stand in front of a movement that can bring added value to the labors of coffee farmers and roasters. Through the bullish behavior of some of their leaders they have managed, in a very short time, to alienate the core specialty roasters they must befriend in order to create the many individual long term business relationships with small roasters required for Fair Trade's success. The fair-traders just didn't seem to get it when it came to the specialty community's obsession with cup quality. The fair-traders didn't seem to understand the specialty roasters' penchant for independent thinking, and free action directed by their own volition.

Deborah James of Global Exchange published some very incendiary rhetoric. She said, “Exploitation and low wages for coffee is the case across the country.” She referred to “gourmet sweatshop coffee” and named specialty coffee's star retailers as “Targets” for “pressure."

She went on to say that, “On several occasions I had to make companies aware that it is NOT ACCEPTABLE to the Fair Trade movement that ONLY those coffee producers who grow the top quality coffee in the world deserve a living wage, and everyone else can just starve to death!” (the capitalization is James')

James was at a gathering of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) when she published these remarks. These are the folks that buy only the top quality coffee in the world. Where the top quality is Fair Trade coffee specialty folks should give these beans a needed opportunity in the marketplace of coffee and coffee ideas. Where the coffee is something less than tops it must find a market elsewhere. To expect otherwise is just silly. And, no, there is no interest in the specialty community in seeing farmers starve. Why would any reasonable person write such a statement?

Global Exchange's James also posted, “I don’t think there is any industry that would take these issues as seriously as SCAA,” and praised SCAA’s progressive leadership. There is something chaotic, potentially dangerous to the trade, and just plain cynical about this approach.

Continued on next page...



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