This month marks the 20th anniversary of the creation of Fair Trade USA, a nonprofit organization designed to help facilitate a more equitable global trade model for small farms. The nonprofit regulates business practices, wages and prices to create a level playing field for all. Fair Trade USA allows companies that comply with their standards to use Fair Trade USA’s label on their products, ensuring that customers’ purchases support the community that produced the product. When we buy products with fair trade labels, we pay a small market premium that returns to the developing community responsible for the product.
However, Fair Trade USA isn’t the only organization that can grant products a “fair trade” label, and each organization adheres to different standards to designate a product as fair trade. As a result, consumers often don’t know where their coffee is sourced from or if it’s ethically produced.
Coffee is one of the most valuable commodities exported from developing countries, and the primary product that fair trade organizations are concerned with. Looking at the market growth of the last year alone, international coffee exports amounted to 10.1 million bags in July 2018, compared with 9.7 million in July 2017, according to the International Coffee Organization. Though brands like Patagonia, Dole and Pottery Barn all pay fees to Fair Trade USA for a “fair trade” label, coffee is Fair Trade USA’s biggest market.
Fair Trade USA came under scrutiny in 2011, when it cut ties with its umbrella organization, Fair Trade International, partly because of changes Fair Trade USA suggested. Critics thought the changes watered down standards and increased the number of “fair trade” designated products, yielding more fees that Fair Trade USA could collect, according to The New York Times. Another contested change was to allow larger farms the fair trade designation, which would reverse the original intent of fair trade — to ensure that smaller farms have a market to sell to.
The organization’s original strict certification requirements for fair trade designation made it difficult for producers to become certified, creating economic imbalances, according to a 2011 article by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. A group of growers, roasters and importers believed that fair trade was little more than an empty title, as Fair Trade USA lacked data on how fair trade-designated products reduce poverty in developing countries.
The efficacy of Fair Trade USA was contested both before the split and after, but regardless, a new, redesigned label for Fair Trade USA entered an already saturated group of designators. This confused consumers and created another list of regulations and practices for fair trade farms that no one would take the time to read. Increased competition between accreditation organizations also means organizations may lower their standards to attract more businesses and yield higher returns — the very act of which Fair Trade USA was accused.
Since then, retailers like Starbucks have shied away from the language of “fair trade,” favoring other methods of assuring ethically sourced beans for customers. Starbucks does not use a fair trade label on its beans and has no mention of it on its site in regards to sourcing. Instead, Starbucks promotes an initiative it helped develop — the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, a “commitment to coffee the world’s first fully sustainable agricultural product.” They also gauge their supplying farms by compliance with Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices regulations.
Similarly, Peet’s Coffee created a program called Farmer Assistance, with the goal of “assist[ing] farmers who have the potential to grow the specialty coffee the world now demands, but who, for a variety of reasons, lack the techniques needed to do so.”
As consumers, we often don’t know where our coffee comes from. We don’t see the cafe’s purchasing processes, and the beans we buy aren’t wholesale or directly from producers. How do we consume conscientiously then?
Read the labels. When you buy beans, check out what tags are on the bag. Even if you aren’t aware of the specifications of each accreditation, a brand marked with a “fair trade” label, whether it be from Fair Trade USA, Fair Trade International or another fair trade organization, it does meet standards of some kind to earn a label.
Buy locally! The West Coast’s coffee game is strong, and getting to know your local roasters and farmers (yes, even Blue Bottle is serving California grown coffee now) can inform your decision of which types of coffee to drink.
As a Bay Area native, I have been a long time fan of San Jose-based Chromatic Coffee. They have such close ties with their producers and importers that they list these individuals on their website and showcase interviews and behind-the-scenes videos, inviting customers to get to know the producers of their beans.
Stay informed. As with all social issues, being informed is a big way consumers can support the cause.
Know the different growing methods and how they rank ethically. Shade-grown, bird-friendly, organic — these are all also scales to gauge coffee farming and distribution from an environmental, health or labor standpoint.
Conscientious coffee consumption can be difficult. But if you are powered by a daily caffeine fix, you can take some time out of your day to be cognizant of the people who make that possible. It’s the least you can do to espresso gratitude.
Breanna de Vera is a sophomore majoring in English and journalism. She is also the chief copy editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Cool Beans,” runs every other Thursday.