Fair Trade is Dead. Long Live the Farmer Cooperative.

Originally published on 21 Century Nomad on December 18, 2011

Since 1999 Fair Trade USA, formerly TransFair USA, has brought Fair Trade certified coffee to the U.S. market. The organization, which manages the licensing and distribution of products in the U.S., introduced millions of consumers to the principles of Fair Trade. They did so primarily through coffee, which accounts for over seventy percent of the American Fair Trade market. Through product branding and advertising campaigns, even an award-winning documentary film, people in the U.S. have come to associate the Fair Trade label with democratically organized farming cooperatives, a minimum price that on average is higher than the price per pound paid on the open market, and social, economic, and environmental initiatives in producing communities. Well, come January first, you must forget everything you know about Fair Trade. Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) has changed the rules dramatically. While they will continue to market the small-scale farmer and the cooperative as the face of the brand, the base of it will be transnational corporations and large-scale plantations. So much for the little guy.

A recent article in the New York Times explains that there are two major changes coming from FTUSA: 1. It will open up its licensing to large-scale coffee plantations, whereas up until now it has sourced exclusively from democratically organized cooperatives of small-scale farmers, and 2. It will certify products that contain as little as ten percent certified Fair Trade ingredients. You might be surprised to find that their previous standard was twenty-five percent, not one hundred, required for the label. While FTUSA describes these changes as bringing “Fair Trade for All” because they will expand the scope of sourcing, and yield an anticipated doubling of the U.S. market for Fair Trade goods by 2015, these changes represent a radical revision of a model that was initially designed to be an alternative to neoliberal trade. Now, it has been fully absorbed into mainstream capitalism.

During the late twentieth century, as global trade was deregulated, small farmers felt the squeeze of transnational corporations who enjoyed looser financial regulations and tax-breaks due to the liberalization of trade and finance. Many Americans are aware that notable free trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA hurt the U.S. economy and American workers by incentivizing corporations to move their production overseas where they had access to cheaper labor markets. What many are not aware of are the terrible social and economic consequences free trade has had in the places where factories were installed, and locally owned production processes were swallowed up by growing transnational corporations. Far from an economic boom for places like Haiti, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, residents eager to take jobs found themselves laboring in sweat-shops, or under oppressive managerial regimes as wage-slaves.

The liberalization of trade, also known as “globalization,” gave corporations increased power, and allowed them to earn unprecedented profits during the late twentieth, and early twenty-first centuries. Many producers of agricultural products grown overseas, including coffee, have historically resisted the pressure from multinational corporations to sell their harvests for less than the cost of growing them. But in a competitive global market, struggling producers often find it impossible to resist offers of on-the-spot cash, even if it means taking a loss, and living in poverty. In their book titled Fair Trade: The Challenges of Transforming Globalization, Raynolds, Murray, and Wilkinson reveal that southern producers, to combat the harmful forces of globalization, formed democratically organized farmer cooperatives that gave them strength and empowerment in numbers. While on their own as individuals they felt the pressure to lower their prices to undercut their neighboring farmers, together in solidarity, they insisted on higher prices. By partnering with nonprofit organizations and NGOs in the U.S., Canada, and throughout Europe that facilitated the negotiation of prices with coffee buyers, things began to look up for some.


Two organizations emerged as the main certifying and licensing bodies for Fair Trade goods during the 1980s: Fairtrade Labeling Organization, now known as Fairtrade International (FTI), which both certifies production and trade at origin and licenses distributors; and TransFair (now FTUSA), which manages licensing and distribution in consuming nations. Both certifications, featuring similar standards yet different labels, are available in the U.S. market. Up until now, there has been little difference between the two. Now however, FTUSA has announced that it will split from FTI as of the new year.

This is not an amicable split. The game-changing new rules proposed by FTUSA have produced much discord in the global coffee community. Prior to deciding to split from FTI, FTUSA brought their proposed amendments to the global overseer of Fair Trade in the hopes of changing the terms on a global scale. FTI balked at the proposal, and denied the changes. Producers are outraged too.

In a recent post by Michael Sheridan on the Coffeelands blog, the author recounted a conversation he had with Merling Preza, General Manager of Prodecoop, a farmer cooperative in Nicaragua, and president of the Latin America and Caribbean Network of Small Fair Trade Producers (CLAC), about the radical changes coming at FTUSA. Preza explained that FTUSA signed an agreement with producers in 2003 that prohibited inclusion of plantations in the Fair Trade system. This agreement was forged in order to protect the livelihoods of small-scale producers, in keeping with the original goal of the Fair Trade movement. Preza recounted that the commitment was reiterated in writing in 2006, and that she received verbal assurance that FTUSA would renew the agreement in June, 2011. But in the interest of growing the market share of the brand, FTUSA has walked away from its commitment to small producers.

Why did FTI deny the proposal that FTUSA claims represents “Fair Trade for All”? Because producers hold a fifty percent stake in decision-making at FTI, while they have no say in the workings of FTUSA. Small producers know that the changes made to the model by FTUSA will hinder their chances at making a living on coffee production. In the same post on Coffeelands, author Sheridan states Preza’s objections to the changes: “Merling says large corporate coffee buyers have been the chief opponents of farmer-led efforts in the past to lobby for increases in Fair Trade coffee prices. She fears that FT4All, which will expand the supply of Fair Trade Certified coffee for large U.S. buyers, will give this segment of the market more influence in the FTUSA agenda. In the absence of a seat at FTUSA’s decision-making table for farmer organizations, that may make it harder for smallholder farmer organizations to defend their positions on specific issues such as Fair Trade pricing and their position in the marketplace more broadly.”

It is not just small producers who oppose the changes in the terms of Fair Trade. Rink Dickinson, president of Equal Exchange, a worker-owned Fair Trade importer and distributor based in Massachusetts, and the first company in the U.S. to sell Fair Trade certified coffee back in 1986, opposes the changes too. Dickinson told the NY Times that the changes show that FTUSA has “lost their integrity.” On the company’s blog, “Small Farmers. Big Change.,” Phyllis Robinson wrote about the position of small farmers in a recent post: “In the coffee sector, small farmers produce approximately 70% of the global coffee supply. Despite the current high prices in the coffee market, fair trade coops are still unable to sell the majority of their coffee under fair trade terms. Expanding fair trade certification and market access to large-scale plantations will assure that fair trade cooperatives continue to remain vulnerable to volatile international markets and undermine 25 years of fair trade development.”

Robinson also points out that inclusion of plantations in the Fair Trade model pits small farmers against farm workers, which stands in the way of solidarity between two groups that are both at risk of harm from the force and power of transnational corporations. On the other side, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, what was once a small, local company and champion of Fair Trade, and now a major corporate buyer and distributor of coffee in the U.S. market, supports the changes because they will allow the company to streamline its sourcing, expand its market share, and grow its profits.

These radical changes at FTUSA have stripped legitimacy from the label that so many consumers have come to trust. Really, that trust was a bit off the mark in the first place. In my research with consumers of ethically sourced coffee, I found that most believed that Fair Trade prices helped farmers far more than they actually do. Sociologist Daniel Jaffee found in his comparative study of Fair Trade versus open market producers in Mexico that certified producers received only marginal financial benefit from participating in the program. This is due in part to overhead costs absorbed by the cooperative, which is often both the mill where it is processed, and the export facility for the producer members. This fact has long been a key component of my critical refrain on the feel-good consumer experience of purchasing Fair Trade coffee, but producer organizer Preza has reminded me of an invaluable aspect of the Fair Trade model: cooperative solidarity.

In her interview with Sheridan cited above, Preza points out that CLAC’s goals for Fair Trade are premised on community solidarity, while the recent changes at FTUSA reflect an individualized model of development. To her and her fellow producers, it is not the price premium that makes Fair Trade work as a development model, but rather “the processes of community organization and collective action” that empower producers and usher in positive change in their communities that is most important.

The perspective of producers like Preza’s was absent in a recent article by Kalefa Sanneh in The New Yorker. The piece, which was published in the November 21 food issue, is titled “Sacred Grounds: Aida Batlle and the New Coffee Evangelists.” The article focuses on the success of Batlle, who owns several farms in El Salvador, and who returned to the country to take over the family business after growing up in Miami. I am familiar with Batlle’s coffee. Hers is a favorite among specialty buyers and roasters who I spoke with during the course of my research on the ethical sourcing of coffee. Like others whose coffee is purchased by leading specialty roasters through a Direct Trade model of sourcing, Batlle’s coffees routinely earn high scores in the annual Cup of Excellence competitions where industry taste-makers decide the year’s hot crops. Cup of Excellence is important for producers, because with top scores come top prices.

While I have admiration for those who use the Direct Trade model for the respect they have for producers, and the far above average prices they pay per pound of coffee, this model, like the new terms of trading with FTUSA, is individualized. The model may make coffee rock stars, like Aida Batlle, out of a few, but it does nothing for the millions of small-scale farmers–they are the majority of coffee producers–who are struggling to survive around the globe. And, it certainly does not produce community solidarity. In her article in The New Yorker, Sanneh reported that Batlle travels with two armed guards and a trained German Shepherd to protect her, presumably from kidnapping for ransom, as she is well-known as a farmer of lucrative crops. Sanneh also reported that one of Batlle’s farm managers was held hostage for two days while “armed pickers” stole much of the farm’s ripened crop.

I certainly do not knock Batlle’s success, which has come from dedication to her craft and hard work, but I am troubled by industry and consumer focus on a very small, elite collection of producers at a time when the majority are struggling and suffering. I find the celebration of the disproportionate success of one farmer particularly problematic because it occurs just as FTUSA has virtually obliterated the promise of Fair Trade for the millions that sought security and found solidarity through the model. The changes at FTUSA, while they may expand the market share of Fair Trade coffee in the U.S., do so at the expense of the livelihoods of small producers and their communities. When it should be working with producers and local organizations to grow the cooperative structure, FTUSA has abandoned the core principles of Fair Trade.

Of course, it is not just coffee producers that will be affected by these changed rules. FTUSA distributes a wide variety of certified products in the U.S. market, including tea, sugar, chocolate, clothing, handcrafts, herbs and spices, nuts, grains, beans, fruits and vegetables, and packaged foods, among others. Now that they will apply their new seal, seen here at right, to products that contain as little as ten percent certified ingredients, you will soon see Fair Trade chocolate bars that may contain no certified cocoa, but ten percent certified sugar. This move puts producers of certified Fair Trade cocoa, and other agricultural products that will be eclipsed by these changes, at a severe disadvantage in terms of shelf-price of certified goods.

Because of these drastic changes Fair World Project, a nonprofit organization that serves to protect the term “Fair Trade” from those who would water down its principles, stated in a letter to Paul Rice, CEO of FTUSA, that the organization would no longer recognize FTUSA as a legitimate Fair Trade distributor if it proceeds with the announced changes to the model. To try to prevent these changes from going into place in January, Fair World Project is now leading a campaign to pressure FTUSA to renounce its plans. Concerned readers can join the campaign by submitting an online letter of protest to FTUSA. But sadly, industry insiders believe that the deal is done. So after January first, the only Fair Trade seal you can trust to represent the interest of farmers is the blue and green of Fairtrade International.

Though from a sociological standpoint I am critical of the individualized approach of Direct Trade sourcing, I recognize that now it is the best available option on the market for farmers, economically speaking. Research has shown that this model benefits Fair Trade certified farmers too, because when Direct Traders purchase certified coffee, they pay more on average than the Fair Trade minimum price requires. As this info-graphic created by researcher and blogger Michael Sheridan illustrates, the Direct Trade model increases prices paid to producers of all kinds of coffee, across the board. If demand for Direct Trade coffee increases, committed roasters will be able to open up the model to more farmers around the world. I would like to see them focus on including more democratic cooperatives in the model as it expands.

Some leading Direct Traders in the specialty coffee industry include Stumptown Coffee located throughout the Pacific Northwest and in New York City, Intelligentsia Coffee which has locations in Chicago and Los Angeles, and Counter Culture Coffee based out of North Carolina. In the San Francisco Bay Area readers can find Direct Trade coffee at Ritual Roasters and FourBarrel. Each of these companies has online stores where you can buy Direct Trade coffee, as does Sweet Maria’s, an Oakland, California-based purveyor of green coffee for the adventurous home roaster. And, at the online portal of the innovative Direct Trade Coffee Club, you can sign up to subscribe to receive coffee from assorted roasters. There are likely some coffeehouses in your area that are using a trustworthy Direct Trade sourcing model. If you want to know, just ask your barista the next time you stop for a coffee. If you cannot find Direct Trade in your area, your safest bet to ensure that farmers are receiving just prices for their product is coffee certified by Fairtrade International, or that is sourced exclusively from a democratically run cooperative of small-scale farmers. Remember, your choices as a consumer matter. In the wake of recent changes at FTUSA, they matter more now than ever.