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The Fair Trade Ideal:
The Ultimate Answer For Sustainability?


It is almost as if Fair Trade’s natural friends are either under attack by its advocates or speaking out against Fair Trade practices. The fair-trader's camp neglected to do their homework. They did not identify the good guys, their natural allies, before unloading on the trade. Didn’t anyone tell these people that you don’t raise the specialty community’s confidence in your goals by threatening Peet's with a picket line?

Some of specialty coffee's most well thought of and articulate industry leaders have risen to speak out against Fair Trade tactics. Many echoed esteemed roastmaster, author and past SCAA board member Kevin Knox, Allegro Coffee, Boulder, Colorado, who characterized the Trans Fair/Global Exchange as showing “chutzpah” in their approach to specialty coffee. Author, green coffee broker and past SCAA president Tim Castle wrote, “The intrinsic value created by the unFAIR trade types makes the farmers subservient to them and locks the farmer into poverty.”

Through all of this hammering of specialty coffee there was no outcry by Fair Trade coffee advocates and organizations about the 92% of green coffee coming into the U.S. that is not specialty coffee. The great global coffee businesses of Kraft, Proctor & Gamble, Nestle and Sara Lee that represent the bulk of all coffees bought and sold in the U.S. were not sullied by the vitriol, nor threatened with bad publicity. They went about their business buying in about 16.5 million bags of green coffee in the last year from their regular commercial sources at historically low prices.

Something is just wrong with this picture. Instead of befriending specialty coffee, as has the Smithsonian Institution in their fight to save the migratory bird population, the Fair Traders came at the weakest link with a truncheon, while leaving the guys that matter, the guys that can really help the cause of the farmer unscathed. This is very unsettling. If the Fair Traders actually mean what they say, how come all the pressure was applied in the place it would affect the fewest number of green coffee bags purchased?

Fair Trade coffee is not a bad idea. It will take hold, in time, as a badge of honor on specialty roasters' lists. It is unfortunate that Fair Trade missed the boat on making advances to the trade with an open and even-handed approach. Considering the approach chosen, they received an appropriate response. In the end you don’t make permanent trading partners through intimidation, extortion, and fear. You only make temporary customers who will look, after a while, for like goods from others to avoid you in the future. Making a sale is not the same thing as making a relationship.

Fair Traders made themselves into pariahs. Now, in spite of their own poor judgement at the start, their goal may be saved by the gravity of the world coffee price situation and the natural American sensitivity toward helping a neighbor in trouble.

TransFair USA is the not-for-profit organization that provides the third party certification for products in the U.S. Paul Rice, TransFair executive director has been both an articulate spokesperson for FairTrade coffee and more measured and thoughtful in his approach than Deborah James has. He has not however repudiated James' mean spirited statements, which many believe she knew to be false at the time she made them.

Some prominent SCAA members raised the Fair Trade issue a year ago asking their association to respond, on their behalf, to the Fair Trade challenge during a time of pain and confusion for so many of its members? SCAA responded to the need for trade association intervention on behalf of its members. In the light of SCAA's action TransFair has changed its approach to SCAA members, has become an active member of the association, and appears to be making efforts at becoming a helpful and cooperating member of the community. In some quarters there is unease that TransFair and SCAA have become so chummy. It is, however, unfair to complain in two directions at once: Fair Trade as adversary, and Fair Trade as partner. SCAA now has a Fair Trade Task Force (the only SCAA Committee with an individual member's brand name). A Fair Trader has been elected to the SCAA board of directors by the association membership.

Roasters are having trouble understanding some of Transfair USA's interests. An importer buying Fair Trade coffee, under license with Transfair USA may not sell it to a roaster as Fair Trade coffee unless the roaster too has signed a Fair Trade agreement with Transfair USA.

People in the green coffee business tell me that they have been taken to task for selling Fair Trade coffee to those who were not a licensed Fair Trade roaster. It begs the question whether Transfair USA may have more of an interest in seeing revenues from licensing fees than an interest in seeing the coffee reach a wider audience.

Fair Trade has a potentially important role to play in bringing a helping hand to the independent farmer cooperatives they create. It may also provide a cache to the roasters and retailers that carry the Fair Trade imprimatur on their goods. The Fair Trade label can make consumers feel that without much effort they can change the world one cup at a time. These are all positive things, but there is work that needs to be done, and additional fences that need to be mended before a layer of trust can be nurtured between Specialty Coffee and the Fair Traders, before they can, together, attempt to save the world.

Donald Schoenholt is c.e.o. and master-of-coffee at Gillies Coffee Company, Brooklyn New York. Gillies is a roaster of sustainable coffee, a Founding Supporter of Coffee Kids and a member of the Smithsonian Institute’s “Bird Friendly” shade-grown coffee program. Gillies was the first corporate supporter of Grounds For Hope. At press time Gillies Coffee Company is not a signatory to a Fair-Trade® Agreement.

Tea & Coffee - November/December 2001
Modern Process Equipment


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