Recent developments around the Fair Trade front have shocked the Fair Trade world. Fingers are pointed at those considered villains. Perceived betrayal has led to feelings of righteous indignation. My own voice has been amongst the chatter. A few days ago, I took a moment to look at the broader reality of what is happening to Fair Trade. In so doing, I came to a significantly different point of view.
Fair Trade certification was born in the late 1980’s from a cadre of individuals motivated by the rampant injustice experienced by coffee farmers, in the face of record profits earned by coffee merchants selling the world’s most traded food commodity. Let’s call them the Idealists.
At first, the Idealists pushed their way into the market and the dominant coffee culture balked. But, soon it became apparent that Fair Trade would become a very popular ‘brand’ that could be applied to anyone’s coffee, as long as the coffee purchased met certain standards. Rightly or wrongly, the name Fair Trade became synonymous with sustainability, and Fair Trade coffee became the hottest selling coffee on the market. Along with its success though, came a plea from one Fair Trade faction to loosen the certification standards in order to free up supply. Let’s call that faction the Pragmatists.
That plea evolved into a Fair Trade civil war between the Idealists and the Pragmatists over the inclusion of estate grown coffees under the Fair Trade label, which had previously been limited to small-scale farmers from democratically run cooperatives. The Pragmatists are keenly sensitive to the power of the market and its capacity to pull millions of pounds of Fair Trade coffee on to supermarket shelves. The Pragmatists also see Fair Trade benefits reaching millions more farmers.
With lower standards, the Idealists are particularly concerned that the level of those benefits to farmers will be significantly reduced, and that the newly certified estates will siphon off sales from small-scale coffee farmers. The Idealists also worry that flooding the market with the Pragmatists’ estate coffee will also pressure cooperatives to lower their own certification standards to increase their own supplies.
Of course, the Pragmatists’ ship has already sailed. So, let’s take a look at the reality.
The reality is that in the course of a generation, the coffee world has become a far better place because Fair Trade pushed its way into the dominant market and carved out a powerful place and brand image for itself. Consumers are far more aware that their purchases affect life at origin, and far more coffee farmers benefit from their participation in Fair Trade cooperatives today than in 1987. And, with the advent of Fair Trade certified estates, millions more will benefit.
The level of those benefits may not have reached the level intended by the Idealists. But, the overall extent of Fair Trade’s impact cannot be minimized. That said, raising standards at this junction will not be easy, as the Pragmatists clearly believe that increasing Fair Trade sales is the single most important mission, and improved standards are an impediment to those sales. The Pragmatists are not reaching for the stars. But, they are consolidating the base.
Fair Trade, as it was originally envisioned by the Idealists, with their high ideals and high standards, is dead. The new norm may be well below the Idealists’ intended mark, but the numbers stand to be increased exponentially along with an ever-increasing presence in the marketplace. The question begs how to increase standards in a market overly focused on volume, sales and profits. Herein lies the missing piece and an enormous opportunity.
The opportunity to repeat what began in 1987, to relive the Idealists’ dream, the excitement, the energy, and the burgeoning entrepreneurism that pushed its way into the market, is ripe to happen all over again. This time though, the jumping off point will be from a much higher level, with higher standards already in place. Yes, the standards are lower than originally intended, but higher than pre-1987 by a long shot.
Of course, in order to take advantage of this opportunity, the Idealists must create a new name, a new brand and new, stricter standards that will challenge the Pragmatists to raise their own standards. Roasters, retailers and consumers will be challenged to think, and engage in a more open dialogue about where their coffee comes from. If done with integrity, a fierce competition will be born between the Idealists and the Pragmatists, and the playing field will be those standards.
All coffee farmers will stand to benefit from rising standards. Consumers will get a better glimpse of the complexities at origin, as those complexities will have to be addressed within the competitive environment. This will be a refreshing change from the more common approach of pandering to consumers with sound bites and superlatives that have little meaning origin.
The time is right for a new generation of Idealists to pick up the baton and run so fast even the Pragmatists’ heads will spin. The next movement will require creativity, courage, commitment, and a serious investment in energy and capital. Breaking through to a higher level will not be easy, however it is quite doable. Let there be no doubt that it can be done. Remember, it was already done in 1987, and it was a much harder sale back then.
Bill Fishbein is Founder of the Coffee Trust, as well as the one of the original founders of Coffee Kids, along with Dean Cycon. One of our industry’s great humanitarians, Fishbein not only represents the best of our purposes, but also advocates for all of us to reach toward higher goals.