The Fair Trade Finish Line

A little while ago my frustration with Cadburys advertising led me to try and sum up my frustrations with Fair Trade in 140 characters. The best I could do was,

Fair Trade – the absolute minimum necessary to get people to stop questioning how you source, or pushing you to do better. Not enough.

The advert that had sparked it off was one I had seen on the underground, and it was the language more than anything that frustrated me:


So there you have it.  A moment of joy!  As if they had reached some pinnacle of sourcing, some great achievement instead of doing the absolute minimum to satisfy the public’s questions about the ethical nature of their sourcing.  No transparency, no open traceability, but don’t worry – we’ve got a logo so don’t worry about a thing.  This BBC article explains the move to Fair Trade that Cadburys made, though the second half could make you cynical about their motivation.

This post was sparked by a short conversation today.  I had popped down to Gwilym’s cart on Columbia Road, because the splendid Jenni Bryant (who many of you will know from Gimme!) was down there working and I wanted to work a little too.  A customer started asking about the WBC – Gwilym has a competition branded Aurelia there – and it turned out to be Nick Francis, one of the two guys behind the film “Black Gold“. We had a little chat about the film, about what I thought of it, about its relevance to the specialty coffee industry, about their goals behind the film.  Interestingly many people criticized him for not being sufficiently pro-Fair Trade in their eyes, while the specialty end no doubt felt like Fair Trade got too much good press and not enough was said about traceability, direct trades, relationship coffees and paying a sustainable premium price based on quality.

As we talked about Fair Trade he opened his newspaper to a full page advert from Starbucks, which many in the UK will have seen recently, proclaiming how proud they are that all their espresso drinks are Fair Trade. I think we shared a frustration here.  No doubt it is better for Starbucks to pay FT prices, if they are more than they were paying before.  However – a purchaser of coffee that large has an opportunity to go over and above Fair Trade.  A few of the mills I visited in my origin trips had sold to Starbucks, most under the a premium program.  1  Herbazu, the farm in Costa Rica whose coffee I used in the WBC finals, used to sell to Starbucks for a premium price – money that helped them build a micro mill, vertically integrate and continue to increase their quality.  The only complaints I heard were that Starbucks demanded open books, to see where every single penny of the premium went – and thus it was annoyingly bureaucratic.  Beyond that Starbucks was considered a great buyer.

I have no doubt that only a relatively small percentage of Starbucks coffee was sourced at a premium like this.  (Update:  I have been corrected on this – see end of post.) However, that is unlikely to change without pressure on them from their customers.  Switching to Fair Trade, and the lack of public understanding about what Fair Trade really means and guarantees, will no doubt alleviate the pressure on them to be ‘sufficiently’ ethical.  I just don’t see ethics as being something you can do by half.  That said – what surprises me is that after the harassment that Starbucks have taken from Costa recently, that they don’t turn the tables and start focusing on Costa’s ethical sourcing.  (Costa commits to sourcing only 30% of its espresso blend through the Rainforest Alliance certification, and says nothing about how it sources the rest.)  Nero dodge the issue on their website – though knowing what they were paying for their espresso blend a couple of years ago, I would have issue with some of their statements.  They’ve recently bought a roastery, and it will be interesting to see if taking their roasting in house results in a change to their buying practices.

I can’t help but feel that Fair Trade’s greatest deception, its most frustrating piece of consumer misinformation (purposeful or not), is that Fair Trade is the ultimate goal – not a starting point.  I’d have nothing against them pitting themselves as the absolute minimum expected of any company but I find it worrying to see it spun into being almost the exact opposite.  I don’t think there is any benefit to bashing Fair Trade, I don’t want to be one of those people, but we do need to agitate the industry – to start talking in very simple terms about how far we go and how much further we can go, as long as we take the public with us.

UPDATE: Thanks to Cindy for the figures and to Yara for telling me the name of Starbucks purchasing program is C.A.F.E. practices.  From Cindy’s comment:

” Actually, in FY2008, Starbucks purchased 77% of its coffee under C.A.F.E. Practices with the goal for reach 100% by 2015″

This is both good news and incredibly disappointing.  Good news that Starbucks buys so much of its coffee so well (in my opinion based on what I have seen at origin, and my limited conversations there).  Disappointing because I would see a move to Fair Trade as largely being a step backwards.  Why not shout about C.A.F.E. Practices?  Why not tell the world what you pay for coffee?  Why not use Fair Trade as a reference point, and then talk more about what you do?  This somehow seems like a caving in to public pressure, and not in a good way.  Again – I’d like to understand this better, thoughts and comments are very welcome.

  1. I thought it was called the Star Program, but I can’t find any evidence of it online – can anyone enlighten me?  ↩︎

363 thoughts on “The Fair Trade Finish Line

  1. And with recent articles regarding the failure of Fair Trade, it seems as though Fair Trade isn’t providing a solution.

    The question is, where do we go from here? Many of us turn to Direct Trade for the solution to the Fair Trade issues. Sustainable and higher wages, rewards for quality, and better relationships, we say. However, to arrive at these, there is significant difficulty and complexity on both sides of the relationship to develop a true partnership. I know of one roaster who marketed a ‘relationship coffee’ but didn’t know the name of the farmer or location of the farm, let alone the ‘relationship’ with the farmer. Subsequently, this roaster dropped the ‘relationship’ after two years. Will Direct Trade become another buzz word that gives us warm fuzzies but does not require the commitment and complexity of a relationship?

    Furthermore, is it possible for all to move out of current systems into a direct model? The fact of the matter is that unfortunately, the barriers of entry for the most direct relationships are stacked against the farmer and the consumer. Between exporting licenses, shipping containers, language barriers, capital and storage issues, Direct Trade isn’t something we can lightly dabble in. Ultimately, it’s going to require a full commitment and constant refining. Unfortunately, it seems like even with this commitment, Direct Trade for some farmers and roasters may not be possible. What do we say to the individual farmer who grows 2,000lbs a year? Does the Fair Trade Cooperative model offer a better opportunity for that farmer than attempting to establish a DT relationship? Is there room in the economic exchange of coffee for more than one model?

  2. There are two prerequisites for coffee farmers to sell coffee to Starbucks under C.A.F.E. Practices – quality and economic transparency. This is why the Herbazu farm in Costa Rica had to open its books and provide documentation on how the money was spent through its supply chain. Transparency is extremely important and where Fair Trade falls short at times. Fair Trade has transparency to the coop level but not to the farmer level. Some coops have thousands of members. You will hear some Fair Trade farmers say they actually make 50 cents per pound. Black Gold highlights this fact. Yes, the film criticizes the big coffee companies, but the farmers interviewed are Fair Trade farmers. If they are making so little, it’s a problem with the Fair Trade model not the company buying the coffee.

    Plus, Fair Trade only certifies small farms belonging to democratically run coops, which is important to help these farmers market their coffee on the world stage. But larger family farms are not eligible for Fair Trade certification. For example, the Herbazu farm in Costa Rica, which you visited is not Fair Trade certified because it is too large and has its own micro mill. But the farmer still deserves a premium price, correct?

    Also, you mention that that a relatively small percentage of Starbucks coffee is sourced at a premium. Actually, in FY2008, Starbucks purchased 77% of its coffee under C.A.F.E. Practices with the goal for reach 100% by 2015. By no means is Starbucks perfect, but Starbucks is taking steps to be more transparent because the company is under scrutiny. Perhaps we should look at Fair Trade the same way.

  3. I don’t think we have to leap all the way to direct trade. Direct trade simply isn’t feasible for many roasteries. We are only able to purchase some stuff direct with the generous assistance of others when it comes to moving it.

    While Direct Trade is definitely something to work towards I think a much more immediate goal is to simply choose to buy traceable coffees, and pay a price for them linked to their quality. If there isn’t sufficient transparency – from broker, exporter or anyone else, then look for something more. The market will provide what is required. If we are willing to pay for it (a big if!) then farmers and millers are, I think, fairly willing to supply what we want.

  4. Yes, most are willing to produce it and sell as direct trades . . . but the real question exporters and producers wrestle with is how much to charge to do something new. New quality, new logistics, new packaging, new communication, new export paper work, new auditing, new risks of failure . . . Very difficult to calculate in financial terms. If we are not willing to push over $2.00+ FOB Origin then I believe we probably cannot justifiably ask for Direct Trade from most producers.

    And secondly how should producers charge for it when the potential sales are 100 bags to maybe 5 containers? There is something said for reduced costs and motivation for a critical mass of sales.

    Thanks for bringing up the messiah complex . . . the floor and ceiling approach is not the messiah. A good friend has defined it well, “Fair Trade is a correct minimum price for Commercial Grade coffee, but I buy specialty coffee”

    Great discussion.

  5. I just served on a panel about this (“Deepening Fair Trade” at the Ross Net Impact Conference at the University of Michigan) with Cate Baril of Transfair. Some great points made, but a lot of it focuses on trade and making it more traceable and transparent. An equal amount of effort ought be dedicated to ensuring families have options for consistent year round income as well. Higher prices go a long way in supporting families, but coffee will never be enough, especially for the small landholders. Encouraging and supporting economic alternatives alongside coffee production can give families more consistent income and bolster families against market volatility.

  6. I’ve been dealing with this a lot lately; customers who want ethically sourced coffee who ask for a coffee with fair trade branding.

    I’ve been looking for a short way to explain that the fair trade designation is a starting point, that we pay very high prices for our coffee because it’s very high quality, and that no, it’s not fair trade designated, but it is an ethical product. And I’ve been trying to find a way to say it so it’s palatable to customers at 6:30 in the morning. So I’m going to steal your 140 character summary and use it shamelessly. Thanks!

  7. I worked for starbucks for some years and spent a lot of that time in moral quandry trying to decide if the company was doing more good or more harm on several levels. Though cafe practices at first seemed like a but of a shifty proposition -going from third party certification to starbucks essentially giving themselves certification, I thought- I’ve since warmed up to it after learning more, including the fact that the certification is done by a third party. It’s nice every now and then to hear comments as above that show some evidence that this really does work for growers.

    I think starbucks has been pushing fair trade so hard lately because it is easier to get that point across than to try to educate their customers on what their own ethical sourcing program is all about. When a company buys into fair trade certification they also are getting a nice prepackaged phrase with which to engage those concerned (but not necessarily that informed) about sourcing. Everyone knows (or thinks they know, or has an idea) what “Fair Trade” means for product they are buying. Starbucks says that CAFE practices is still their main program for ethical sourcing (, which suggest that they will indeed continue to pay above fair trade for most of their coffee. Unfortunately CAFE practices doesn’t have the same pull with starbucks’ yuppie clientelle as the magic words “Fair Trade Certified”, so it seems in public they push their fair trade affiliation while less publically working towards CAFE practices certification for most of their coffee .

  8. Hello James,

    I recently came across your blog and noticed that you focus much of your attention on ethical issues such as fair trade. My name is Kiki and I am a volunteer ambassador for Shared Interest and Im writing to you to ask you if you would like to support our cause.

    Shared Interest is a co-operative lending society and the worlds only 100% fair trade lender that aims to reduce poverty in the world by providing fair and just financial services. We work with fair trade businesses all over the world, both producers and buyers, providing credit to help them trade and develop.

    We currently have just over 8700 members who have collectively invested 25.5 million. Unfortunately the demand for our lending has far outstripped our ability to supply all of our funds are fully lent. It is for this reason that we are actively soliciting new members and we could really use your help in this endeavour. Helping is relatively simple placing a simple text link or Shared Interest banner on your blog would be fantastic. You can find our banners at the following url:

    We would be more than happy to reciprocate by adding a link to your site from our blog. Please let me know when you have added a link or banner and I will do the same.

    Thank you very much for your consideration and have a great day!


  9. Well said, Kyle.
    This is a great discussion, of the sort that we should all be having more often in the specialty coffee industry. This is an incredibly complex issue, difficult to address in any broad manner due to diverse producing, and purchasing, situations. Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, your local small roastery, Herbazu, a co-op in Ethiopia, or a large plantation in Brasil all come with their own set of circumstances (obviously). We have to keep this in mind, tailoring individual solutions to each situation. This approach is strengthened by long-standing trade relationships, a deeper knowledge of the intricacies of each situation, and the broader goals of the producer and roaster.
    Here’s where I think we all become too focussed on the price paid for the coffee as being the primary piece of data on which we place the success or failure of a more ethical sourcing program. We forget the WHY of this movement in the first place! We’re after a truly ethical sourcing program in which the quality of life can improve for producers, yes? We should continue to question what that means, exactly, and how we measure it.
    Yes, we should be concentrating on transparency, traceability, quality, and integrity. Thankfully, these are becoming more accepted, and have even moved toward the status of common sense for sourcing practices in the industry.
    But beyond establishing relationships to raise quality, and then paying for that quality (probably more so under direct trade-type programs), what are the broader benefits for the producing community? Without a doubt, in certain direct trade relationships, the broader impact has been extraordinary… but can that happen more often, for more producing communities? What else, beyond extra funds paid for the coffee, can a more ethical trade model contribute?
    This attacks a fundamental question of how we measure success: monetary values, or by other bottom lines?
    Idea exchange, collaboration, more participatory work on community issues (Bikes to Rwanda is one example that springs to mind, as does Cafe Femenino). I think that to truly be ethical in the way we source coffee, we absolutely have to be holistic!
    So to get back to Kyle’s point, it should be within our reach as responsible coffee purchasers to work with producing communities on year-round income, as well as contributing to other areas that can improve quality of life (education, infrastructure, gender issues, health care, etc). Before we get too focussed on the fact that direct trade coffees pay more to the farmer in a more transparent way than Fair Trade tends to, we should remember that we’re all working towards a model in which the bare minimum is a progressively ambitious and holistic target.

    (there are many caveats to this, especially in how it would be applied… i.e.: i’m not suggesting that every coffee roaster who buys coffee directly then has the power to dictate how or where extra funds should be spent on community projects… but rather that collaborative and participatory support could be offered for such projects. moreover, we should also be talking about commodity grade coffees and sourcing practices there… but that’s another discussion!).

  10. This is one of those great debates that will last us for a long time but will also keep me going. I have really been having this debate for almost 10 years.

    I think Rick actually hit it pretty squarely on the head when he said, “I think starbucks has been pushing fair trade so hard lately because it is easier to get that point across than to try to educate their customers on what their own ethical sourcing program is all about.” That goes back to some of your earlier posts, James, about ‘educating the customer’ (customer reaction: ick), and also how the coffee community handles the press.

    I think the vast majority of us in the specialty market really do want to see a higher price for green coffee, and as Amber mentioned, a higher ‘sustainable/holistic/etc.’ impact on the people we buy coffee from. And for better or worse, we as a coffee community are fascinated with that complex process, wether it’s through co-ops in mexico, the COE, or the ECX in Ethiopia. We will talk about them until we are blue in the face. But are we really explaining it to the consumer?

    This is where I also starting wading into the muddy waters of the ‘Direct Trade’ model. If I try to put on my ethical consumer hat (actually, usually my mom does this for me), it’s very hard for me to understand clearly and easily what’s better about Direct Trade. For the most part, you as a consumer have to keep the faith in your roaster to tell you that they really are in a relationship, and perhaps how they define it. Is a Direct Relationship knowing the name of a farmer? A visit once a year? Education/Training at origin? All? None? Does a Direct Relationship coffee need to have a multi-year contract, or pre-harvest financing for farmers? Is it 3rd-party certified? When does the definition of direct trade become ‘ethical’ enough? And why does one farmer get lucky, while all his or her neighbors suffer the same old fate?

    I think this is where specialty coffee falters. We spend a lot of time saying that Fair Trade isn’t what it could be, but not a lot of time clearly defining/explaining/marketing the better alternative, if there currently is one. And I’m not saying there is.

    Sorry to use the American political reference, but when it comes to this issue, it seems like we’re all Democrats. We all agree that there are big flaws with Fair Trade, but then we spend a lot of time debating the complex nuances of any alternatives. In the meantime, we leave the consumer alone in the grocery aisle, with the choice between fair trade or canned coffee. I just hope they reach for the Fair Trade for now – but we come up with a clear message for the alternative.

  11. Thanks for the comment Amber. And great discussion. Helping these families have more consistent income, access to education and health care, and greater food security goes a long way to ensuring sustainability. Coffee Kids and other nonprofits in the industry give every shop, roaster, and consumer the opportunity to help these families create more vibrant local economies that help buffer against price fluctuations. .

  12. Jim: Great post that has given rise to a great discussion…Is this what you mean by agitation? :) I love your 140-character summation of Fair Trade. At one point, after more than 3 years of full-time FT activism in the United States, I had thought of a bumper-sticker version of the same sentiment: “Fair Trade. It's the least you can do.” The point is the same as the one you raise, and that is that Fair Trade ought not to be held up as the goal, but rather a point of departure on a longer and more meaningful path. As a stand-alone goal from the corporate side it is pretty uninspiring and invites the kind of cynicism you seem to share. From the perspective of the coffeelands, it hardly has a monopoly on the way farmer organizations think about trade that contributes to sustainable development…M

  13. Dayna Kohnz

    Good day! Do odiassd you know if they make any plugins to help with SEO? I’m trying to get my blog to rank for some targeted keywords but I’m not seeing very good gains. If you know of any please share. Cheers!

Leave a Reply