How Fair is Fair?

In an article yesterday, BusinessWeek explored a debate going on about the rise of fair trade certifications and labels.  Some fair trade organizations are criticizing the main US FT label, TransFair, for expanding the FT labeling program so quickly and widely in the past few years.  The label once mostly applied to coffee and tea has spread to fruits and flowers, and TransFair would like to take it into other industries, too, like garment production.

These critics say that giving fair trade certifications to large farms and plantations goes against the spirit of fair trading, given the history of worker exploitation on some of those  farms.  Plus, what with all the new groups being investigated for the labels, there aren’t enough oversight resources to make sure that the farmers, and farms, stay fair.

TransFair disagrees:

Part of the problem Rice and Wal-Mart face is the difficulty of applying the same standards of equity and economics to different types of crops. While half of the global production of coffee comes from small farms, it takes a larger operation to compete in bananas, tea, cut flowers, or sugar. “The disadvantaged majority would be locked out of the market if I were to look for only small farms for bananas and tea,” says Rice.

It’s a reasonable disagreement, and an important discussion to have while the movement is growing- but don’t let it dissuade you from buying Fair Trade.

Products that are fair-trade certified are made under better working conditions, and direct more resources back to the folks who make them than otherwise would ever happen.  It’s a sustainable way to grow both business and community resources.  But one definition of “fair” isn’t going to work everywhere.  Maybe they could have a label that was just for “Fair Enough”- or better yet, some kind of label information about what practices the group producing the item worked under.

In the end, though, I’d rather TransFair push their certification programs too far than not far or fast enough.

3 Responses to “How Fair is Fair?”

  1. 1 CM June 19, 2008 at 10:12 pm

    Ever wonder why most fair trade coffee tastes almost as bad as that freeze dried Folgers crap?

    Short version
    TransFair’s requirements that farmers be part of a democratic co-op remove the incentive for individual farms to improve their product. TransFair’s requirements also means that many of the best coffee producers (who treat their employees wonderfully) are never even considered. Do yourself a favor and seek out good coffee and I guarantee everyone involved in getting it to your cup was treated fairly.

    Even your very own Arlington natives know better than to trust “fair trade” coffee.
    “Nick Cho, owner of Murky Coffee in Arlington, Virginia, says customers often ask whether his coffee is Fair Trade, but quality-conscious coffee shops like his would never deal in coffee bought for less than $1.26 a pound. He finds the very suggestion that he’s dealing in cheap beans grating. ‘You don’t walk into a four-star restaurant and demand to know whether they pay their chefs minimum wage,’ says Cho.”

  2. 2 Gentleman Friend June 20, 2008 at 11:08 am

    The absolute best coffee I’ve ever had (being a foodie snob from a family of caterers and whatnot) was actually grown at a fair-trade, certified-organic, Smithsonian-endorsed-bird-sanctuary coffee plantation in Colombia. Color me biased because it’s [my] family-run, perhaps, but they’ve taken the old-world methods of growing the coffee — interspersing it among natural shade trees, fertilizing it with manure from the local farms, providing refuge (and free pest control) for migrant birds, etc. They use wasps instead of pesticides. The entire mesa (? not sure how large the operation is – I’m planning on visiting next summer) is a miniature community; he’s built a school, decent housing, and generally made a real LIFE for these people.

    The coffee is some of the most expensive stuff in ‘gourmet’ coffee shops. For serious — check it out.

    It tastes three kinds of awesome.

  3. 3 virescent June 20, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    I actually don’t drink coffee, so I’m not sure about your taste question, CM. I did enjoy the stuff from Mesa De Los Santos that the GF touts- it seemed less bitter and more flavorful than others. And I’ve given a lot of FT coffee as gifts- the recipients seemed to enjoy the taste, but that’s really all I have to go on for taste comparisons.

    It would appear that in the two years since the Reason article came out, TransFair has changed their practices- in the BW article, they’re defending their decision to license the very same large farms that Reason complains they won’t license- which is the whole reason other FT activists are calling them “FT Lite”. I think TransFair’s switch to certifying more kinds of operations is only a good one, and it seems like Reason would agree.

    While the article makes some good points that FT certifications don’t certify based on better taste, and that just because there’s no certification label it doesn’t mean the workers are being exploited, it seems to me that the Reason article is presenting FT as having no other benefits than conscious-soothing marketing. I think it’s strange to argue that “a clear conscience” is an invalid reason to buy coffee (people purchase coffee for many different reasons, not all of them “best taste” or “cheapest price”). I also think it’s strange for a magazine so dedicated to the independence of thought to attempt to devalue some rational decisions, by labeling them as entirely driven by advertising or too hippieish. Their attempts to defend the producers of coffee as generally not exploitative are also unconvincing.

    I find it straight-up irresponsible that they state that since people pay lots more for coffee at Starbucks, that price increase “must be” trickling down to the farmers who grow the beans, regardless of FT status. They give no examples of this “obvious” conclusion, they make no attempts to even cite evidence. So since Starbucks charges too much for coffee and silly Americans pay it (stupid clever marketing, tricking the poor mindless souls!), all of a sudden Starbucks decides to pay more for their materials then producers are charging? And the producers decide to pay their workers above the local market wage? No. That “reasoning” is, at best, a fantasy.

    The quote you give seems a bit non-sequitur- if the price of FT coffee was set about 1.26/pound, why is the guy in Arlington complaining that he doesn’t buy cheap beans under 1.26/lb, so he doesn’t buy FT? Also what does the taste of coffee have to do with it being made FT or not- as much as it’s ridiculous to argue all FT coffee tastes good, it’s ridiculous to argue that all FT coffee tastes bad. I’m pretty sure this guy wouldn’t turn down a FT coffee if it conformed to his taste standards.

    So yeah, interesting article, but a trifle misleading and very much out-of-date, it seems.

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