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The Brawl Over Fair Trade Coffee | The Nation

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The Brawl Over Fair Trade Coffee

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Not everyone in the fair trade world is resolutely opposed to expanding certification to plantations and small coffee farmers. Some prominent fair trade actors—who won’t speak on the record—share Rice’s concern for the millions of small farmers whose beans cannot be certified because they are not organized into cooperatives. But those same people are skeptical about Rice’s ties to large corporations, and they recoil from his sharp-elbowed tactics and relentless demeanor. Their skepticism is warranted: in his zeal to push ahead, Rice has sent misleading signals about his timeline, implying that his pilot projects are simply experiments and that they’ll be monitored and assessed by various stakeholders. “I think it will work, I hope it will work,” Rice told the blogger Julie Fahnestock. “But if it doesn’t work, we won’t continue it.”

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Scott Sherman
Scott Sherman (scottgsherman.com), a contributing writer to The Nation,  is at work on a book about the New York...

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But Rice is moving fast, and the train has left the station: Whole Foods is already purchasing beans from FTUSA’s Brazil pilot project for one of its espresso blends. (Rice hastens to point out that Whole Foods is paying the fair trade premium, which he says enabled Fazenda’s workers to obtain dental and eye care recently. Indeed, FTUSA insists it will uphold the Bonn standards in terms of a minimum price and premium paid to farmers.) Green Mountain Coffee, which prides itself on its social and environmental responsibility, has adopted a more cautious approach: it, too, will buy beans from the pilot projects but, in the words of its fair trade coffee buyer, Ed Canty, the company won’t label the beans as fair trade–certified “until we have evaluated the impact of these pilots at origin.” That is to say, until the dust from the current brawl has settled.

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Some fair trade experts, such as the Washington State University sociologist Daniel Jaffee, see parallels between the organic agriculture movement of the 1960s and ’70s and what’s taking place in fair trade today. In both cases, standards were lowered or altered to pave the way for corporate involvement. Jaffee notes that what happened to organic agriculture is “a cautionary tale of label dilution and corporate capture,” and it could happen again to fair trade coffee.

Observers predict a protracted struggle ahead. “I don’t see Fair Trade USA caving in,” says Michael Sheridan, whose Coffeelands blog has become a vital forum for discussion on this topic. “It is very committed to its ‘Fair Trade for All’ vision. I don’t think surrender is in Paul’s DNA.” Equal Exchange and its allies are also determined to press on and articulate why they believe a model built on democratic, farmer-owned cooperatives is vastly preferable to one based on privately owned plantations.

The current controversy amounts to a “battle over the soul of the seal,” says Jaffee. Indeed, shoppers will soon be confronted with a plethora of labels. In the past, there was a single certification label for fair trade coffee in the United States, that of FTUSA. Soon there will be at least four labels (and possibly more): Fair Trade USA’s; a label that Fairtrade International has introduced into the US marketplace; a label from the Institute for Marketecology in Switzerland; and a “small producer’s symbol” organized by the Mexico City–based nonprofit FUNDEPPO, which represents the old-line cooperatives in the fair trade system, and which Equal Exchange and other progressive companies have agreed to use.

Further splintering the fair trade coffee scene in the United States is the rising number of progressive companies that have chosen to bypass certification altogether. Some are building their own fair trade brands and posting the relevant information—about the prices they pay and the co-ops they work with—on their websites in an effort at transparency.

Matt Earley and his colleagues at Just Coffee in Madison ended their relationship with FTUSA in 2004: “We saw almost all of this coming nearly ten years ago—the pandering to corporate coffee, them wanting to change their rules to dumb down standards in order to get the big boys more involved.” Earley is fervently devoted to fair trade, but he’s decided to do it on his own terms, outside the certification model. His website lists eighteen coffee cooperatives with whom he has a business relationship. Among them is the Yachil Xolobal Chulchan cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico, which has 1,552 members in seven autonomous municipalities run by the Zapatista revolutionary movement, and which has endured repression at the hands of government security forces and paramilitary groups. Just Coffee pays the cooperative $3.03 a pound for its beans—nearly double the floor price guaranteed under the fair trade system. “We are committed,” Earley says, “to paying farmers a better price than they would receive almost anywhere else.”

In solidarity with the farmer cooperatives, Earley has also decided to embrace the small producer’s symbol—yet another reminder that politically conscious consumers had better scrutinize the fine print on the label. A precarious but worthy experiment is now under threat. Bring your reading glasses to the supermarket.

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