A Permanent Divide?A fair-trade expert discusses the current confusion—and how the situation may play out
By Dan Leif
The current passion-fueled divide in fair-trade coffee is starting to reach a point where consumers are likely to take notice (and perhaps become confused). On one side of the argument sits Fair Trade USA, the licensing and certifying organization that recently split with its longtime global partner Fairtrade International in an effort to significantly increase the amount of fair-trade product moving through the United States. On the other are roasters and observers including Equal Exchange who feel FTUSA has undermined a key tenant of fair trade by opening the process up to estates not organized into formal cooperatives.
To get some perspective on a specialty-coffee debate that seems likely to roll on for months or years, Fresh Cup turned to Jeff Goldman, executive director of the Fair Trade Resource Network, a nonprofit that aims to objectively report on the fair-trade movement.
Q: Fair trade coffee is pretty fragmented. In the United States, we will soon be seeing coffee bags with Fair Trade USA’s certification logo, others with IMO’s Fair for Life logo and still others with an SPP logo that represents a group of small fair-trade farmers in Latin America. Won’t that get overwhelming to consumers?
A: It is a very confusing time, and that’s uncomfortable for a lot of us, but I don’t assume nothing good will come out of it. If you look at organics or the women’s movement or gay rights or civil rights, there are a lot of things going on with fair trade that are analogous with what happened in those movements. Lots of new ideas are coming in and innovation is happening. But it’s also a fairly small and low-capacity movement. If you look at sales or the number of people involved or the amount of money it spends on advocacy, it’s relatively poor and at the end of the day it’s a movement trying to help poor people in far-away countries. It’s struggling to work through that.
Q: Which philosophy do you see winning out long term: Fair Trade USA’s or that of the folks sticking to cooperatives only?
A: It’s way too early to guess. There are three specific certifications that are widely accepted right now—Fair Trade USA, Fairtrade International and IMO Fair for Life—and, yeah, there will be more to come. The interesting question is, what’s the tipping point? What’s the key factor when people decide we need to consolidate, we need to form reciprocity? I’ve also heard of people creating different bars or levels. So there’d be a gold, silver and bronze or high, medium and low fair trade. But no one can really predict that right now.
Q: Does Fair Trade USA have an advantage because of its strength in marketing? It does a great job connecting with consumers and can provide a lot of support to roasters and other partner companies. Doesn’t FTUSA’s logo seem destined to win out in the U.S. market?
A: No, I wouldn’t see it like that. Various certifiers have different pros and cons. Fairtrade International is actually bigger—they’re global, and they’re currently in the process of setting up a U.S. labeling initiative like Fair Trade USA. I don’t know what the size of that is going to be. FTUSA has had strength in marketing, but they’ve also had certain weaknesses. They’ve been really angering a lot of folks in the movement, and the process they used has been criticized as arrogant. Maybe they’re setting themselves up for attack or vulnerabilities if those allegations are widely accepted.
Q: Do any of these certifying bodies have more ownership of “fair trade” than the others?
A: Fair trade is not a legal term, just like “all natural” is not. Anyone can self-proclaim to be fair trade, and some folks do that. “Fair trade certified” is different, though. Fair Trade USA has that trademarked.
Q: What advice would you give to a roaster wondering which certification body to choose?
A: If you have the time and interest, you just need to go do your own research. Find out the differences between certifiers and find out opinions of advocates in the movement. If you don’t have the time and clarity, maybe the best move is not picking one at all and just waiting for the dust to settle.