Why We Need to Keep Fighting for Fair Trade

fighting for fair trade

As the demand for gourmet coffee continues to rise, so do the movements pushing for fair trade standards. A recent report released by SPINS, determined that Fair Trade Certified products at mainstream grocery stores grew by 87 percent in the second quarter of 2011 over the previous quarter, and sales in the specialty and gourmet channels grew by 32 percent, for an overall growth rate of 63 percent.

But, despite the encouraging data, there are still millions of farmers across the world who are harvesting premium coffee, yet continue to live in dire poverty due to scanty wages. According to the Organic Consumers Association, “farmers in countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala and Brazil, which are some of the largest producers of coffee, are forced to sell the future rights to their harvest to exploitative middlemen in exchange for the credit they need to pay for basic necessities. The world price is set on the New York ‘C market’-the section of Wall Street that deals in sugar, cocoa and coffee. While severely volatile, the C market price for coffee has hovered around $1 per pound since the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989. Farmers in over 50 nations are hostage to this speculative market. They generally receive less than half the C market price, or between 30 and 50 cents a pound for coffee that retails for as much as $10. That rate earns a family an average of only $600 a year.”

Most of the world’s coffee is grown by indigenous people who harvest the beans from small plots that are approximately ten acres. On larger plantations,  the association found that: “many are worked by landless day laborers with low rates of unionization and extremely poor working conditions. In 1995, as a result of pressure from the US/Guatemala Labor Education Project, Starbucks drafted the first Code of Conduct for coffee suppliers, but they have yet to implement it. Starbucks refuses to disclose the location of the plantations from which it buys, making independent monitoring impossible. A recent study by the Guatemalan Commission for the Verification of Corporate Codes of Conduct found half the workers on fincas (rural housing) in that country earning less than $3 per day for picking 100 pounds of coffee. Workers also were subject to forced overtime without compensation, and usually did not receive their legally-mandated benefits. Coffee workers are denied basic labor rights not just in Guatemala, but worldwide, and efforts to develop an industry-wide Code of Conduct are underway.”

So even with an increased demand for fair trade coffee, there is still much work to be done to empower farmers. Many independent organizations are deciding to take matters into their own hands by traveling to poor coffee plantation communities.

One such organization, known as On the Ground is doing exactly that; members are running — yes your heard correctly: RUNNING — in places like Ethiopia, to spread awareness, raise funds and build vital community structures, such as medical facilities and schools. On the Ground’s purpose is to support sustainable community development in farming regions across the world by partnering with other philanthropic agencies, donors, and communities to provide opportunities for indigenous communities around the globe to build lasting infrastructure.

In January 2001, a team of 12 from the organization went to the fair trade coffee cooperative of Negele Gorbitu, in the town of Afursa Waro, Ethiopia to run 250 miles in 12 days. “Run Across Ethiopia” was founded to generate funds for education projects. The run raised more than $200,000, allowing the group to build three schools in some of the most impoverished areas of Ethiopia.

Just last week, a documentary showcasing the 12-day run was release by Mishe Mokwa Media. Entitled “When We Run,” the trailer alone on this film is powerfully inspirational and certainly worth viewing.

For more information on how to help please visit: On the Ground


Photo by: DFID/Flickr

  1. The idea that Fair Trade participation is a way out of poverty for small holder coffee farmers is little more than a myth. Every extensive study of the fair trade premium’s effect on living standards has found it to be insignificant, or worse. Here’s a link to a German study that tracked 327 coffee families in Nicaragua over 10 years and found ” that organic and organic-fairtrade farmers have become poorer relative to conventional producers.” http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800911000127
    What’s more, the U.S. fair trade organization is now starting to allow estate farms to market their coffee under the fair trade label. That means large-scale coffee farms that utilize indigenous laborers — in sometimes terrible conditions — could market their coffee as fair trade. Is that something we should get behind?
    If anything, we should start fighting against fair trade and for direct trade, or new standards and better premiums for fair trade farmers.

  2. Thanks for your comment Karl. The study you provided is very insightful, but there are many programs around the world that are working (such as the one in Ethiopia we mentioned). There is no question that proper enforcement and stricter standards need to be present for fair trade to truly support the livelihood of all workers.

    1. Just to say they are working or taking an organization’s word that fair trade is benefiting those communities without providing any objective evidence is the type of reporting that has left consumers ill-informed. DId you know, for instance, that U.S. consumers could soon be buying their fair trade products from large farms and factories? Not exactly the places consumers have in mind when they shell out a little bit extra for fair trade. http://www.wfto.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1574&Itemid=314

      1. Thanks for your comment Karl. We are working on a post that will address some of the unethical and deceptive practices that occur in the fair trade industry. We sincerely value your feedback.

  3. I know this is a dialogue that took place a few months back but I’m just seeing the post so please forgive a late comment.

    I have actually spent substantial time on the ground meeting with hundreds of farmers in many countries across Latin America and I can say first-hand that a few pennies extra for Fair Trade or Organic certifications – if they even get a premium at all – is not going to fix the problem. Farmers are still leaving the industry in double-digit rates because they can’t make a living…that is a very real problem.

    I will not try to elaborate on it all here and take up too much space but the model we designed via ThriveFarmers.com was to totally turn the tables and finally give the farmer a vested stake in the retail side of the market that his/her crop is helping to create. They will earn incomes 5-10x a “fair trade” model and the consumer will get a quality of coffee never seen in “FT” circles.

    You can look at our blog posts and see comments from real farmers as to why this works. It’s all about alignment of interests and having the incentives in the right places.

    Glad to discuss further if you like. Would love to have you think about the value of an article/post on this model.


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