As daylight dims and diminutive ghosts and goblins retreat from the streets where they’ve honored Halloween’s curious traditions — visiting the porches of strangers to ask for candy, soaping windows and garlanding the neighborhood trees with toilet-paper — so, too, does twilight fall on the second annual celebration of Fair Trade Month.

The purpose of Fair Trade Month is, of course, to celebrate the achievements of the Fair Trade movement, and to encourage consumers to shop for, and to ask for Fair Trade certified products — coffee, tea, sugar, bananas, grapes, pineapples, rice and — what every little monster hopes to find in his or her trick-or-treat bag — chocolate.

But not only have a great many consumers never heard of Fair Trade Month, many have still to hear about Fair Trade. And while TransFair has had measurable successes in the US — the market for Fair Trade coffee has grown by about 70% every year, and more than 400 coffee merchants now sell at least some Fair Trade Certified coffee — there’s grumbling from within the specialty coffee community of roasters and retailers that Fair Trade is anything but fair to them. There’s grumbling from the consumer community at large that roasters and retailers are pocketing too large a share of Fair Trade price differentials. To bring it full circle, there’s even grumbling by coffee farmers that Fair Trade helps… but that it’s still not enough.

So I’m left to wonder… is Fair Trade fair? Is it equitable? Is it a viable solution to the price crisis that has plagued coffee for years? In a nutshell — Fair Trade: Trick, or Treat? This is the first in what will be a series of articles to examine how the Fair Trade system works, what it’s accomplished… and what’s still left undone. It’s a weighty subject, it deserves a fair bit of air-time… and I’ll do my best to give it a fair shake.

I’ll begin by making sure you know that I work in the specialty coffee trade for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, a company that sources and roasts quite a number of Fair Trade Certified, organic coffees. I’ve picked coffee side-by-side with coffee farmers in Guatemala, and seen first-hand what Fair Trade can do. I’ve also spoken at length with US coffee roasters who find it difficult — or simply refuse — to buy into the Fair Trade program. While none of this makes me an expert — I’m still mostly just a consumer looking for a great cup of coffee — hopefully it does help to make me informed. Finally, just as these articles represent my own thoughts on Fair Trade, I hope you’ll share yours, too… I invite you to add your comments, below.

The ideals of Fair Trade are simple and well-intended: break the cycle of poverty by offering farmers a price floor and a ready marketplace for their products, and in exchange win assurances of eco-friendly and sustainable farming practices. In theory this cycle should lead to an upward spiral of increasing economic stability and product quality, and in practice, it does. There are a great many success stories that can be told…

  • …of the coffee farmers in Colombia who have been empowered to make a stand against the drug lords — their lands now produce coffee that earns them a livable wage, they no longer need to grow coca.
  • …of the farmers on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala who have been able to distribute medicine to all the growers’ children and improve their nutrition, eliminating what had been an appalling infant mortality rate. (Those children are now enjoying a newly expanded school, too.)
  • …of the farmers in Huatusco, Mexico who have reforested their surrounding lands, bringing their ecosystem back from the edge of destruction, and in so doing have earned organic certification bonuses.
  • …of the cooperative in East Timor that has not only built clinics and schools, but served as an island of calm and refuge as lands around it erupted in civil war.
  • … of the cooperative in the highlands of Aceh, Sumatra, that not only has been able to offer microloans to its members to fund new and diverse business, but was able to donate tons of food to tsunami victims in Banda Aceh, to build and repair 34 homes, and fund continuing support for orphans and widows in the community following the disaster.

In short, Fair Trade certified cooperatives build not only increased wealth for their members and upgrades for their farms, but also social, cultural, health and educational support networks. Fair Trade cooperatives almost universally become community centers, which give back to their communities in so many more ways than they’ve received. It’s these networks that will ultimately prove to be the real force for sustainability in these coffee communities… Fair Trade price supports simply served as a springboard.

Next time… what about those places Fair Trade can’t reach?

More: coffee|fair trade|organic

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