Economic Development

The Problem with Fair Trade Coffee

Fair Trade-certified coffee is growing in consumer familiarity and sales, but strict certification requirements are resulting in uneven economic advantages for coffee growers and lower quality coffee for consumers. By failing to address these problems, industry confidence in Fair Trade coffee is slipping.


Jesus Lopez Hernandez picks ripe coffee cherries on a farm associated with Cooperativo Las Brumas, near Matagala, Nicaragua. (Photo by Janet Jarman/Corbis) 

Peter Giuliano is in many ways the model of a Fair Trade coffee advocate. He began his career as a humble barista, worked his way up the ladder, and in 1995 co-founded Counter Culture Coffee, a wholesale roasting and coffee education enterprise in Durham, N.C. In his role as the green coffee buyer, Giuliano has developed close working relationships with farmers throughout the coffee-growing world, traveling extensively to Latin America, Indonesia, and Africa. He has been active for more than a decade in the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the world’s largest coffee trade association, and currently serves as its president.

Giuliano originally embraced the Fair Trade-certification model—which pays producers an above-market “fair trade” price provided they meet specific labor, environmental, and production standards—because he believed it was the best way to empower growers and drive the sustainable development of one of the world’s largest commodities. Today, Giuliano no longer purchases Fair Trade-certified coffee for his business. “I think fair trade as a concept is very relevant,” says Giuliano. But “I think the Fair Trade-certified FLO model is not relevant at all and kind of never has been, because they were doing something different than they were selling to the consumer. … That’s exactly why I left TransFair [now Fair Trade USA]. They’re selling a different thing than they’re producing.”

Giuliano is among a growing group of coffee growers, roasters, and importers who believe that Fair Trade-certified coffee is not living up to its chief promise to reduce poverty. Retailers explain that neither FLO—the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International umbrella group—nor Fair Trade USA, the American standards and certification arm of FLO, has sufficient data showing positive economic impact on growers. Yet both nonprofits state that their mission is to “use a market-based approach that empowers farmers to get a fair price for their harvest, helps workers create safe working conditions, provides a decent living wage, and guarantees the right to organize.”1 (In this article, the term Fair Trade coffee refers to coffee that has been certified as “Fair Trade” by FLO or Fair Trade USA; the term Fair Trade refers to the certification model of FLO and Fair Trade USA; and the term fair trade refers to the movement to improve the lives of growers and other producers through trade.)

FLO rules cover artisans and farmers who produce not just coffee but also a variety of goods, including tea, cocoa, bananas, sugar, honey, rice, flowers, cotton, and even sports balls. Its certification process requires producing organizations to comply with a set of minimum standards “designed to support the sustainable development of small-scale producers and agricultural workers in the poorest countries in the world.” 2 These standards—31 pages of general and product-specific standards—detail member farm size, electoral processes and democratic organization, contractual transparency and reporting, and environmental standards, to name only a few. Supporting organizations, such as Fair Trade USA, in Oakland, Calif., ensure that the product is properly handled, labeled, and marketed in the consuming country.

Like many economic and political movements, the fair trade movement arose to address the perceived failure of the market and remedy important social issues. As the name implies, Fair Trade has sought not only to protect farmers but also to correct the legacy of the colonial mercantilist system and the kind of crony capitalism where large businesses obtain special privileges from local governments, preventing small businesses from competing and flourishing. To its credit, Fair Trade USA has played a significant role in getting American consumers to pay more attention to the economic plight of poor coffee growers. Although Fair Trade coffee still accounts for only a small fraction of overall coffee sales, the market for Fair Trade coffee has grown markedly over the last decade, and purchases of Fair Trade coffee have helped improve the lives of many small growers.

Despite these achievements, the system by which Fair Trade USA hopes to achieve its ends is seriously flawed, limiting both its market potential and the benefits it provides growers and workers. Among the concerns are that the premiums paid by consumers are not going directly to farmers, the quality of Fair Trade coffee is uneven, and the model is technologically outdated. This article will examine why, over the past 20 years, Fair Trade coffee has evolved from an economic and social justice movement to largely a marketing model for ethical consumerism—and why the model persists regardless of its limitations.


The idea of fair trade has been around since people first started exchanging goods with one another. The history of trade has shown, however, that exchange has not always been fair. The mercantile system that dominated Western Europe from the 16th to the late 18th century was a nationalistic system intended to enrich the state. Businesses, such as the Dutch East India Company, operating for the benefit of the mother country in “the colonies,” were afforded monopoly privileges and protected from local competition by tariffs. Under these circumstances, trade was anything but fair. Local workers often were compelled through force—slavery or indentured servitude—to work long hours under terrible conditions. In the 1940s and 1950s, nongovernmental and religious organizations, such as Ten Thousand Villages and SERRV International, attempted to create supply chains that were fair to producers, mostly creators of handicrafts. In the 1960s, the fair trade movement began to take shape, along with the criticism that industrialized countries and multinational corporations were using their power for further enrichment to the detriment of poorer counties and producers, particularly of agricultural products like coffee.

Adding to these perceived economic imbalances is the cyclical nature of the coffee business. As an agricultural product that is sensitive to growing conditions and temperature fluctuations, coffee is subject to exaggerated boom-bust cycles. Booms occur when farm output is low, causing price increases due to limited supply; bust cycles occur when there is a bumper crop, causing price declines due to large supply. Price stabilization is an objective commonly sought by less-developed countries through commodity agreements. Thus the International Commodity Agreement (ICA) evolved as a means to stabilize the chronic price fluctuations and endemic instability of the coffee industry. The first of these agreements arose in the 1940s to provide stability during wartime, when the European markets were unavailable to Latin American producers.

After the war, a boom in coffee demand made renewal of the agreement unnecessary. But during the late 1950s, down cycles threatened economies once again. The ICA essentially was little more than a cartel agreement between the member countries (coffee producers) to restrict output during bust periods to maintain higher prices, storing the surplus beans to sell later when output was low. Because the US government was concerned about the spread of communism in Latin America, it supported the cartel by enforcing import restrictions. In 1989, however, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the waning of communist influence, the United States lost interest in supporting the agreement and withdrew. Without US enforcement, the cartel fell prey to rampant cheating on the part of its members and eventually dissolved. Attempts have since been made to resurrect the cartel—but though it exists in name, it remains largely ineffective.

Recognizing the dire circumstances confronting farmers during the late 1980s, when the price of coffee once again plunged, fair trade activists formulated a system whereby farmers could obtain access to international markets and reasonable reward for their labor. In 1988 a coalition of those economic justice activists created the first fair trade certification initiative in the Netherlands, called Max Havelaar, after a fictional Dutch character who opposed the exploitation of coffee farmers by Dutch colonialists in the East Indies. The organization created a label for products that met certain wage standards. Other similar organizations arose within Europe, eventually merging in 1997 to create FLO, based in Bonn, Germany, which today sets the Fair Trade-certification standards and serves to inspect and certify the producer organizations.


Why do we care about fairly traded coffee? One reason is the importance of coffee to the economies of the countries in which the crop is grown. Coffee is the second most valuable commodity exported from developing countries, petroleum being the first. For many of the world’s least developed countries, such as Honduras, Ethiopia, and Guatemala, coffee exports make up an enormous share of the export earnings, comprising in some cases more than 50 percent of foreign exchange earnings.3 In addition, many of the coffee growers are small and their businesses are financially marginal.

Although some of the world’s poorest countries produce coffee, the preponderance of that production is consumed by the citizens of the world’s wealthiest countries. The United States is the world’s single largest consuming country, buying more than 22 percent of world coffee imports; the combined countries of the European Union import roughly 67 percent, 4 with other countries importing the remaining 10 percent. According to the Specialty Coffee Retailer, an industry resource site, specialty coffee in 2010 accounted for $13.65 billion in sales, one-third of the nation’s $40 billion coffee industry. The Specialty Coffee Association of America reports that approximately 23 million people in the United States drink specialty or gourmet coffee daily. Fair Trade coffee, which has grown steadily from 76,059 pounds in 1998 to 109,795,363 pounds in 2009,5 constitutes only about 4 percent of that $14 billion market.

The primary way in by which FLO and Fair Trade USA attempt to alleviate poverty and jump-start economic development among coffee growers is a mechanism called a price floor, a limit on how low a price can be charged for a product. As of March 2011, FLO fixed a price floor of $1.40 per pound of green coffee beans. FLO also indexes that floor to the New York Coffee Exchange price, so that when prices rise above $1.40 per pound for commodity, or non-specialty, coffee, the Fair Trade price paid is always at least 20 cents per pound higher than the price for commodity coffee.

Commodity coffee is broken into grades, but within each grade the coffee is standardized. This means that beans from one batch are assumed to be identical to those in any other batch. It is a standardized product. Specialty coffee, on the other hand, is sold because of its distinctive flavor characteristics. Because specialty coffees are of a higher grade, they command higher prices. Fair Trade coffee can come in any quality grade, but the coffee is considered part of the specialty coffee market because of its special production requirements and pricing structure. It is these requirements and pricing structure that create a quality problem for Fair Trade coffee.

To understand how the problem arises, one must understand that the low consumer demand for Fair Trade coffee means that not all of a particular farmer’s coffee, which will be of varying quality, may be sold at the Fair Trade price. The rest must be sold on the market at whatever price the quality of the coffee will support.

A simple example illustrates this point. A farmer has two bags of coffee to sell and there is a Fair Trade buyer for only one bag. The farmer knows bag A would be worth $1.70 per pound on the open market because the quality is high and bag B would be worth only $1.20 because the quality is lower. Which should he sell as Fair Trade coffee for the guaranteed price of $1.40? If he sells bag A as Fair Trade, he earns $1.40 (the Fair Trade price) and sells bag B for $1.20 (the market price), equaling $2.60. If he sells bag B as Fair Trade coffee he earns $1.40, and sells bag A at the market price for $1.70, he earns a total of $3.10. To maximize his income, therefore, he will choose to sell his lower quality coffee as Fair Trade coffee. Also, if the farmer knows that his lower quality beans can be sold at $1.40 per pound (provided there is demand), he may decide to increase his income by reallocating his resources to boost the quality of some beans over others. For example, he might stop fertilizing one group of plants and concentrate on improving the quality of the others. Thus the chances increase that the Fair Trade coffee will be of consistently lower quality. This problem is accentuated when the price of coffee rises to 30-year highs, as it has done recently.


One of the unique characteristics of the FLO and Fair Trade USA model is that only certain types of growers can qualify for certification—specifically, small growers who do not rely on permanent hired labor and belong to democratically run cooperatives. This means that private estate farmers and multinational companies like Kraft or Nestlé that grow their own coffee cannot be certified as Fair Trade coffee, even if they pay producers well, help create environmentally sustainable and organic products, and build schools and medical clinics for grower communities.

Although the cooperative requirement may seem unusual, it follows logically from the experience of Paul Rice, founder and president of Fair Trade USA. Rice spent most of the early 1980s working with cooperative farmers in Latin America, studying and implementing training programs for small farmer organizations on behalf of the Nicaragua Agrarian Reform Ministry under the Sandinista administration. In 1990, he became the first CEO of prodecoop, a fair trade organic cooperative representing almost 3,000 small coffee farmers in northern Nicaragua. Then in 1998, he founded Fair Trade USA. Rice sees cooperatives as the key to the empowerment of the independent coffee farmer, providing a union-like type of collective bargaining power that enables cooperative leaders to negotiate pricing for the individual members.

Membership in a cooperative is a requirement of Fair Trade regulations. Another core element is the premium—the subsidy (now 20 cents per pound) paid by purchasers to ensure economic and environmental sustainability. Premiums are retained by the cooperative and do not pass directly to farmers. Instead, the farmers vote on how the premium is to be spent for their collective use. They may decide to use it to upgrade the milling equipment of a cooperative, improve irrigation, or provide some community benefit, such as medical or educational facilities.

Fair Trade USA is a nonprofit, but an unusually sustainable one. It gets most of its revenues from service fees from retailers. For every pound of Fair Trade coffee sold in the United States, retailers must pay 10 cents to Fair Trade USA. That 10 cents helps the organization promote its brand, which has led some in the coffee business to say that Fair Trade USA is primarily a marketing organization. In 2009, the nonprofit had a budget of $10 million, 70 percent of which was funded by fees. The remaining 30 percent came from philanthropic contributions, mostly from foundation grants and private donors.

People in the coffee industry find it hard to criticize FLO and Fair Trade USA, because of its mission “to empower family farmers and workers around the world, while enriching the lives of those struggling in poverty” and to create wider conditions for sustainable development, equity, and environmental responsibility.6 “I’m hook, line, and sinker for the Fair Trade mission,” says Shirin Moayyad, director of coffee purchasing for Peet’s Coffee & Tea Inc. “When I read [the statement], I thought, there’s nothing I disagree with here. Everything here I believe in.” Yet Moayyad has concerns about the effectiveness of the model, mostly because she does not see FLO making progress toward those goals.

Whole Foods Market initially rejected the Fair Trade model. The supermarket chain only recently began buying Fair Trade coffee, through its private label coffee, Allegro, in response to the demand from their consumers. Jeff Teter, president of Allegro Coffee, a specialty coffee business begun in 1985 and sold to Whole Foods in 1997, said that his main concern has been the quality of Fair Trade coffee. “To get great quality coffee, you pay the market price. Now, in our instance, it’s a lot more than what the Fair Trade floor prices are,” he says. As for social justice for coffee growers, Teter responds: “We were living the model at least 10 years before Paul Rice and TransFair people got started here in America. … Paul Rice and his group have done an amazing job convincing a small group of vocal and active consumers in America to be suspicious of anybody who isn’t FT.” Rice disagrees, arguing, “Fair Trade is the only certification program today that ensures and proves that farmers are getting more money.”


My field and analytical research has found that there are distinct limitations to the Fair Trade model.7 Perhaps the most serious challenge is the extraordinarily high price of coffee. “The market today is five times higher than when FLO entered the United States. The market’s at $2.50 (per pound for commodity coffee) today vs. the 40 cents or 50 cents (per pound) it was at in 2001,” says Dennis Macray, former director of global sustainability at Starbucks Coffee Co. This price shift dampens farmers’ desire to sell their high-quality coffee at the Fair Trade price. Many co-ops, according to Macray, are choosing to default on the Fair Trade contracts, so that they can do better for their members by selling on the open market. Macray, who is now an independent sustainability consultant with clients such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, says the default problem is seriously compounded by the perceptions of quality. Some roasters express concern that the quality of Fair Trade coffee is not at the same high levels as other types of specialty coffee sold alongside it. “For some cooperatives the Fair Trade price became the ceiling, not the floor. … Many Fair Trade buyers do not see a reason why they should pay any more than the fair trade price for the value that is Fair Trade,” explains Macray.

In the past, coffee growers were often isolated in remote regions and had little access to market information on the value of their product. Unscrupulous buyers might offer only very low prices, taking advantage of farmers’ lack of information. Today, however, growers have access to coffee price fluctuations on their cell phones and, in many cases, have a keener understanding of how to negotiate with foreign distributors to get the best price per pound. In addition, the growing demand for very high quality coffee has led to a tremendous increase in the number of buyers traveling to more remote regions to ensure the supply they require.

Another important flaw is FLO’s inability to alter the circumstances of the poorest of the poor in the coffee farming community. Although FLO does dictate certain minimal labor standards, such as paying workers minimum wage and banning child labor, the primary focus and beneficiary is the small farmer, who, in turn, is defined as a small landowner. The poorest segment of the farming community, however, is the migrant laborer who does not have the resources to own land and thus cannot be part of a cooperative. In Costa Rica, for example, most small farms, including those selling Fair Trade coffee, employ migrant laborers for harvesting, particularly from Nicaragua and Panama. Rice believes that because the “yields are so low on a small farm and it’s basically family run, the migrant labor issue is not as relevant.” But at the same time he admits that the benefits of Fair Trade do not reach migrant laborers; he says he wants to expand the model to serve this population.

Rice has never wavered from his view that Fair Trade’s “central goal is to alleviate poverty,” and he is adamant that the organization’s model is as relevant as it was 20 years ago. But during that time many of FLO’s provisions of have become duplications of regulations already in place in Latin American countries, such as minimum wage requirements, credit financing, and contracting terms. “I just don’t think that the benefits are trickling down,” says Philip Sansone, president and executive director of the Whole Planet Foundation (the philanthropic arm of Whole Foods). Rice disagrees and defends his model. “The small holders in Latin America would have no way of climbing out of poverty,” he says. “One-acre farmers standing alone are pretty much always going to be victimized by stronger market forces, be they middlemen or moneylenders. At those farm unit sizes and yields, no one is viable in the global market if they stand alone.”

Another challenge for FLO is the issue of transparency in business dealings. FLO regulations require a great amount of record keeping, to ensure that individual farmers have access to all information pertaining to the cooperative’s sales and farming practices, enabling them to make more informed business and agricultural decisions. But this record keeping has proven to be a hurdle in some cases. In addition to being time-consuming, it has also raised language and literacy barriers. Certification forms, for example, only recently were made available in Spanish. “They want a record to be kept of every daily activity, with dates and names, products, etc. They want everything kept track of. The small producers, on the other hand, can hardly write their own name,” 8 said Jesus Gonzales, a farmer at Tajumuco Cooperative in Guatemala. Records kept by cooperatives have shown that premiums paid for Fair Trade coffee are often used not for schools or organic farming but to build nicer facilities for cooperatives or to pay for extra office staff. Gerardo Alberto de Leon, manager of Fedecocagua, the largest cooperative in Guatemala selling Fair Trade coffee, told me during my 2006 field research, “The premium we use here [at the cooperative]—you saw our coffee lab, it is very professional.”

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Waterbury, Vt., sells more than 100 coffee selections, including Fair Trade blends. (Photo by Dave G. Houser/Corbis)

Although the cooperative lab may improve quality or sales or aid in member education, it is not necessarily where consumers who buy Fair Trade coffee think their money is going. Macray says coffee consumers want to know that the extra premiums are being used for social services. “Many licensees have started to question whether the premiums were being used for social good: schools, education, health, nutrition, and so on,” he says. “It became difficult to tell the story of where that premium was going. So in your retail shop, you want to be able to tell your customers, yeah, how we provide all this extra funding for these co-ops and it made these differences.”

FLO also provides incentives for some farmers to remain in the coffee business even though the market signals that they will not be successful. If a coffee farmer’s cost of production is higher than he is able to obtain for his product, he will go out of business. By offering a higher price, Fair Trade keeps him in a business for which his land may not be suitable. There are areas all over Latin America and Africa where the climate and growing conditions are simply not conducive to coffee growing. “Fair Trade directs itself to organizations and regions where there is a degree of marginality,” explains Eliecer Ureña Prado, dean of the School of Agricultural Economics at the University of Costa Rica. “We’re talking about unfavorable climates [for coffee production]. … Regions that are not competitive.”


The FLO model has changed little since its inception. Although the Fair Trade price and premium for coffee has been adjusted upward over time, the rules and regulations have remained fairly static. Fair Trade’s chief legacy may be greater consumer awareness among coffee drinkers. “We generate awareness to create demand in the market,” explains Stacy Wagner, public relations manager at Fair Trade USA. And they have had tremendous success doing so. Today, according to Wagner, 50 percent of American households are aware of Fair Trade coffee, up from only 9 percent in 2005.

Representatives from Starbucks, Peet’s, and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (which owns such brands as Caribou Coffee, Tully’s, and Newman’s Own) all report a push from consumers for more transparency of contract and socially responsible business practices. It is rare to find a coffee roaster or retailer these days that does not address social issues in some way. Some do so by offering Fair Trade coffee. Others, however, have sought out other solutions, such as adopting other certifications or by developing their own programs. “A number of importers and exporters in the coffee business are saying we can get more money into the pockets of farmers through direct trade than if we use the FLO model,” says Macray.

Examples of businesses that have risen to meet consumer demands include Starbucks, Peet’s, and Whole Foods’ Allegro coffee. Although Starbucks offers Fair Trade coffee as one of a number of options, they also have put into place a C.A.F.E. Practice—a program that defines socially responsible business guidelines for their buyers. Many coffee producers have taken note of this model and made their practices more sustainable to attract the attention of Starbucks’ buyers. Likewise, Peet’s buys a lot of coffee from TechnoServe, an organization working to improve the business practices of farmers in developing countries. “One of the objections to Fair Trade could be that the term ‘cooperative’ doesn’t perforce equate to ‘farmer,’” says Moayyad. “Just because a certain price is guaranteed to the cooperative, doesn’t actually mean that the farmer is receiving it.”

With TechnoServe, farmers get a much higher percentage of the proceeds—up to 60 percent more according to Moayyad, even though their stated focus is “developing entrepreneurs, building businesses and industries, and improving the business environment.” 9 TechnoServe’s model focuses on quality production and farm management. “It’s not a charity,” says Jim Reynolds, roast master emeritus of Peet’s, who has more than 30 years of buying experience. “It’s building skills and better business organization, so they can run their own co-ops more efficiently and earn better pricing by finding good buyers.” Teter also follows this type of socially responsible corporate investment. Allegro pays well above the Fair Trade price to obtain the quality coffees its customers want. In addition, 5 percent of Allegro’s profits goes to charity, and 85 percent is spent in growers’ communities.

“The model for sustainable coffee that was popular five years ago has changed quite a bit,” says Macray. “Five years ago, it was common practice to just go out and buy certified coffees and check the box; and today it’s about integrating sustainability and transparency into your supply chain. Companies are making it a core way of doing business.”

For more on Fair Trade:
Read a counterpoint to “The Problem with Fair Trade Coffee” article.

Read “The Future of Fair Trade…Is There One?” blog.

Listen to the “Alberto Irezabal – Bringing Fair Trade to Indigenous Farmers” podcast.

Colleen Haight is an assistant professor at San Jose State University, currently on leave to serve as the economics program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. She previously worked at Adams Corp., a Silicon Valley start-up that was acquired by Adobe Systems.

Tracker Pixel for Entry

1 Fair Trade USA website:


3 International Coffee Association website:

4 Ibid.

5 TransFair USA 2009 Almanac, p.10.


7 Colleen Haight, "Is Fair Trade in Coffee Production Fair and Useful? Evidence from
Costa Rica and Guatemala and Implications for Policy," Mercatus Policy Series, Policy
11, June 2007.

8 Jesus Gonzales from the Tajumuco Cooperative, Guatemala, as quoted in Un Mundo
de Certificacion,
a video produced for the 2005 Specialty Coffee Association of America
meetings in Seattle.



  • Jonathan's avatar

    BY Jonathan

    ON June 23, 2011 11:24 AM

    Interesting article but the author misses fundamental concepts. First, Max Havelaar was not started to meet certain wage standards. It was started, primarily, to provide market access. That is still the primary purpose of fair trade certification: to provide market access under decent conditions for small farmers.

    Floor price is not the primary mechanism for fair trade. It is an important part of creating economic stability for small farmers but, again, the primary mechanism is market access. If we look at fair trade as a tool, just one of numerous tools available to create market access and more fair trade for small farmers.

    The requirement for cooperatives is aimed at finding a non-exploitative structure to help farmers organize. Fair trade grew out of attempts to support organizing and macro-economic change, not just paying a higher price. The cooperative requirement was built into fair trade long before Paul Rice had even heard of fair trade.

    Whole Foods was against fair trade for many years—the founder and long time CEO, John Mackey is a self-avowed libertarian who personally opposed some of the market interventions of fair trade.

    And Allegro coffee was certainly not living the model before Paul Rice. They did buy from a few producers directly but bought most coffee through brokers and not in ways that empowered many peasant farmers to organize as a way to create better life.

    It is true that the fair trade model has evolved little in over 20 years. And it is true that it is not the answer to small farmer poverty.

    And, there are ways to get more money directly in the pockets of farmers. History suggests, however, that individual deals and projects, while seemingly more efficient, undermine the movement building that is essential for significant and sustained change. This is what fair trade has supported, with all its imperfections. This is what the technoserve model and Direct Trade ignore. For a few, those models will work better. For large numbers, however, I think it important to look at movement building among farmers.

    Further, one thing this article doesn’t touch on is the role of fair trade in changing awareness in the coffee industry and beyond. When we introduced the first fair trade coffee in the 1980’s and 1990’s other coffee companies and leaders laughed or ignored us. They said you couldn’t mix social change work and business. Now, that concept is almost automatic in the coffee industry. That may be fair trade’s most powerful legacy in the USA.

  • dpodmaye's avatar

    BY dpodmaye

    ON June 23, 2011 12:52 PM

    Great Article!  As with all environmental initiatives, they often start out well intended but get corrupted or at least watered down by the status quo along the way.  These initiatives need to be challenged to evolve and grow, seeking to continuously improve their charter, mission, objectives and effectiveness. It is way to easy to hide behind a banner of “doing good.

    It seems like a multi-lateral review team with some transparency made up of interested parties and field experts might be able to jump start this to the next level.

    David Podmayersky

    Sustainability Director

  • BY Peter Giuliano, Counter Culture Coffee and Special

    ON June 23, 2011 02:40 PM

    Although I was interviewed by Ms.  Haight, and although I have been quoted at length at the beginning of the article, I disagree with Haight’s conclusions, and I believe she has misstated my actual opinion of Fair Trade Certified coffee.

    The disconnect I was referring to in my quote is that the FLO-Fair Trade USA model emphasizes co-ops, and rarely advertises that fact when promoting Fair Trade Certified coffee.  Their public emphasis has been on price- “a minimum wage for coffee farmers”- instead of on the co-op model which is the focus of Fair Trade Certification.

    That’s not to say that Fair Trade Certified is bad.  The co-op model, however, is worth celebrating, because it is a powerful agent for agricultural transformation in coffee.  I believe in co-ops, and I believe in Fair Trade Certified as a way of promoting small producer co-op coffees.  I made that clear to Ms. Haight, I’m sorry she chose not to capture that element of my opinion.

    Ms. Haight is wrong: I actually buy LOTS of Fair Trade coffee for my business.  In fact, FLO certification is an important element of my company’s Direct Trade Certification, which recognizes the importance of both co-ops and larger non-co-op farms. 

    Ms. Haight presents TechnoServe as an alternative to Fair Trade, but they are not: TechnoServe is a development agency which competes for outside funding of their projects, NOT a certification available to consumers.  TechnoServe works in concert with Fair Trade certified cooperatives often.  Thinking of the two as alternatives is incorrect.  Technoserve also sells no coffee, so Peet’s cannot “buy coffee” from them as Haight states.

    In general, this article sadly does not capture the complexity and vibrance of the fair trade coffee movement, and winds up painting an incomplete and incorrect picture, in my opinion.  I disagree strongly with most of her conclusions.

    Peter Giuliano

  • BY Colleen Haight

    ON June 24, 2011 12:48 PM


    I am sorry if you feel I misrepresented your views. You were very clear in your interview that you strongly support cooperatives as a business structure. My article is not intended as a condemnation of cooperatives, but rather as an examination of Fair Trade as a model intended to alleviate poverty. You did indeed tell me you bought from Fair Trade-certified cooperatives for your own business. However, you also were clear that you did not purchase Fair Trade-certified coffee, as you do not pay the royalties required to use the Fair Trade-
    certified label.

    From my transcription of our conversation, you said: “We actually have a third party certifier and the consumers totally accept that as a substitute for Fair Trade. My customers did.” Later in the interview
    you said, “We’re not paying TransFair their ten cents.” (The ten cents being the fee paid directly to Fair Trade USA, formerly TransFair, to allow the use of the certification label.)

    You clarified that your floor price was higher than the Fair Trade floor price, and that you might also pay an additional premium as high as $0.80 on top of that to obtain the quality your customers demand.

    Some of the readers of this article may not be clear that while a cooperative may be certified for the production of Fair Trade coffee, and while some of their harvest may be sold as Fair Trade-certified
    coffee, there is not sufficient demand to sell all the coffee produced according to Fair Trade guidelines. The cooperatives therefore sell this excess production on the open market to buyers such as yourself.

    As for TechnoServe, my point is that it is an alternative to Fair Trade because it provides tools for alleviating poverty among coffee growers. I did not state that TechnoServe provides certification. Shirin Moayyad at Peet’s brought the TechnoServe model to my attention as one that she believes is providing tangible and sustainable benefits to coffee farming communities.

    I would like to underscore that the opinions expressed in this article are mine and mine alone. My opinions, however, are based on the numerous conversations I have had with people in different segments of the coffee industry—from farm owners and workers to importers, roasters, and retailers.

    Colleen E. Haight

  • Enrique's avatar

    BY Enrique

    ON June 26, 2011 02:55 PM

    I agree that the author misses fundamental concepts. However, if coffee prices are related to the coffee qualities in a complex market (and quality also determines the price the farmer recive), how can be possible that strict certification requirements result in uneven economic advantages for coffee growers, and lower quality for consumers? It’s totally senseless.

  • Katharine's avatar

    BY Katharine

    ON June 28, 2011 01:27 AM

    This is a very muddled article.

    The author misses the fundamental point that the Fairtrade standards are clear that farmers should either receive the Fairtrade minimum price OR the market price, WHICHEVER IS HIGHER. When market prices are higher than the Fairtrade minimum price, the farmers should receive the market price for their Fairtrade crops. The Fairtrade minimum price acts as a safety net for when prices are low, and a mechanism to reduce price volatility. 

    Regarding Fairtrade Premium use, the Fairtrade movement has always stood for the right of farmer and worker organizations to decide themselves how to use Premium money. Increasingly, farmer organizations see that it makes sense to invest Premium money in increasing the quality and productivity of their businesses - because this will support the long-term sustainability of their members’ businesses. Critics of Fairtrade cannot on the one hand argue that the system does little to support quality and productivity whilst also suggesting that it is somehow inappropriate for Premium monies to be used to support business development. Whilst the majority of Premium funds are still used for community projects, such as supporting schools, the use of Fairtrade Premium to support business improvements is an important and welcome development.

    The point on record-keeping is also misplaced. All certification systems require some level of record keeping, and most of them require an internal management system to be in place within the farmer organization. In fact, Fairtrade demands on producers are lighter than other certification systems in this respect. However, since many farmer groups are certified to more than one system - eg organic plus Fairtrade - it can be challenging for individual farmers to identify which requirement relates to which certification system.

  • BY Tamara Stenn, Keene State College

    ON July 21, 2011 05:50 PM

    I have been working inf FT for 15 years - both as a producer and a researcher. 

    As the many critiques pointed out, the author missed the point of FT - the long term stability it provides, support of local governance, development of cooperatives, skills building, environmental protection.  All of the non-monetary things that become invisible with the lack of a $ attached to it.  There’s lots of great research out there that documents this.

    I have spoken to several FT Farmers from Latin America and Bolivia.  They start investing their social funds into their business when they have exhausted their community needs (they already built the school, health clinic, roads, and bridges).  FLO recently recognized and supported the right of farmers to choose collectively (through their cooperative structure) who to spend their social funds.

    It is true that FairTradeUSA is very influential in FT, they have the most lenient guidelines, and offer no discrepancy at all when deciding who to give access to Fair Trade (ie WalMart), but that is not really addressed in this article.  Plus WalMart (now the largest buyer of FT coffee in the world) sells their FT coffee at a more accessible price for lower income consumers - thus democratizing consumer access to FT.

    FT has has a tremendous effect on the stabilization and growth of local communities, education and skills building of farmers, and sustainable farming in an industry that originally was very environmentally detrimental.  It also gets children out of the fields, away from pesticides, and into school.  This is huge (especially in the chocolate and flower industry).

    FT isn’t perfect and it’s good to think critically.  The best thing about FT is the industry is so open to new ideas (FLO just updated their certification requirements to make the paperwork easier for farmers this year).  So thinking now of what the next 20 years needs, will be more helpful than poo-pooing the hard work that has already taken place in an industry that has evolved in ways never thought possible in today’s world of competitive, winner-takes-all, “free” trade.

  • Ann Malone's avatar

    BY Ann Malone

    ON July 23, 2011 02:25 PM

    I found these three statements chilling: 

    1)  “This (the cooperative requirement) means that private estate farmers and multinational companies like Kraft or Nestlé that grow their own coffee cannot be certified as Fair Trade coffee, even if they pay producers well, help create environmentally sustainable and organic products, and build schools and medical clinics for grower communities.  Although the cooperative requirement may seem unusual….”

    2)  “Another important flaw is FLO’s inability to alter the circumstances of the poorest of the poor in the coffee farming community….the migrant laborer who does not have the resources to own land and thus cannot be part of a cooperative.”

    3)  “My article is not intended as a condemnation of cooperatives, but rather as an examination of Fair Trade as a model intended to alleviate poverty. ” 

    FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) not withstanding, eliminating poverty though efficiency is NOT a stand-alone objective.  The American frontier was a place of poverty borne for the sake of self-determination. 

    Mom and Pop stores likely will not distribute goods as efficiently as Walmart; Mom and Pop just aren’t as smart as the few guys running Walmart.  But small ownership lends dignity to existence by giving Mom/Pop/children concrete problems to evoke critical thinking skills and creativity for survival.  Same with a small farm. 

    Big outsiders (Walmart, Kraft, Nestle) doing everything to “eliminate poverty” at the lowest level so that they can take over the land from the next lowest level is nothing this American can get behind.  Since WWII, we’ve seen a decline in demonstrated intelligence in the majority of our own population for the sake of efficiency and “eliminating poverty” by large outside intervention rather than developing the common man tied to the land, aka the “little guy.” 

    Eliminating poverty is NOT a stand-alone objective!  For those with a concept of human dignity, self-determination trumps poverty.

  • BY Jamie Sarner

    ON September 23, 2011 07:10 AM

    “The market today is five times higher than when FLO entered the United States. The market’s at $2.50 (per pound for commodity coffee) today vs. the 40 cents or 50 cents (per pound) it was at in 2001,” says Dennis Macray, former director of global sustainability at Starbucks Coffee Co. This price shift dampens farmers’ desire to sell their high-quality coffee at the Fair Trade price. Many co-ops, according to Macray, are choosing to default on the Fair Trade contracts, so that they can do better for their members by selling on the open market.”

    - Isn’t this actually a good sign that the conditions for selling coffee are improving? It seems to me that nowadays farmers have greater market access than in 2001 and more options when choosing their products’ outlets. But Fair trade’s existence is legitimate because it functions as a fail safe if something would happen in the market. From my own experience, based on purchasing from Fair Trade shops in Toronto  since 1997, I can confirm the increasing demand and popularity of Fair Trade products. The number of shops offering these kind of products has increased tremendously.

  • BY Jerry Rasch

    ON November 21, 2012 10:46 AM

    This article seems to me a good example of what needs to happen in all ethical, social-economic movements—we need to continue to refine what counts for our best efforts, ethically and economically, to make sure we are best serving those we intend to serve.

  • BY Elizabeth Kronoff

    ON May 14, 2013 10:33 AM

    This article essentially suggests not that there is a problem with Fair Trade coffee, but that there are a couple of perverse incentives in the Fair Trade legislation and its certification process that need to be addressed.

    Fair trade as a movement is sound: that if people are informed, they will pay more so that their material purchases are not made on the backs of the disenfranchised, the starving, the destitute.

    Just because a specific instantiation of the model has problems does not mean the overall premise is unsound. The Stanford Social Innovation Review can do better than articles with such weak internal validity.

  • Notice that the author of this article (besides giving a very incorrect rendition of the views of the person (peter) she quotes at the beginning—-which is poor journalism given the rest of the article which covers some of these issues) is a visiting prof at GMU’s Institute for Humane studies a Koch/Scaife funded libertarian outfit.  (Just her describing Starbucks and Whole Foods—-both anti-union——more or less indicates her emphasis ) 

    But this comes from Stanford.  (i guess they have paul erlich to cover their tracks as a token environmentalist).

  • BY Jared Mullins

    ON July 1, 2013 08:46 AM

    The problem is that corruption and mismanagement occurs everywhere. Even a group that starts with good intentions can end up turning against those intentions and becoming corrupt.

  • Paschal's avatar

    BY Paschal

    ON March 26, 2014 10:39 AM

    For my little understanding and experience in my area, I can likely believe that Fair trade is not for mallholder farmers in developing countries whereby majority of farmers are not clearly organized, if they are organized, the organization is fragmented, meaning there many groups with minimum of 3 members each one having his/her own practices and standards they adopted from their ancestors

  • BY Esperanza

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  • The author did a great job of representing several angles to the arguments in her article.  I did not walk away with a sense that she indicated that FT is a terrible or failing concept.  However, there are some ethical issues here, such as money and power and the fact that money and power does not “trickle down” to a simple farmer. 

    Some of the “critiques” are also clearly biased yet interesting.

  • I suspect in her effort to produce an article brief enough that people will read the whole thing, the author left out certain important details.  Not sure what they are, but I definitely walked away feeling like there is way more to this model and the required analysis than what is explained here.  There’s enough there for a mere consumers like me to have to question the real meaning and benefits of buying FTO certified coffee, but not enough to conclude that there’s a better alternative at this point.  And of course, as with any piece of persuasive writing, the piece will slant a certain direction (that being the point of persuasive writing after all).  Most helpful would be more discussion of how to fix the problem or examples of existing efforts to do so.  But in the end a piece of this length can’t be everything to everyone.  So while there are flaws, I think the author likely achieved her goal with the article.

  • Mark Ritchie's avatar

    BY Mark Ritchie

    ON November 22, 2014 08:14 AM

    The description of the history of fair trade in Europe and the US could use some polishing. Certified Fair Trade was introduced into the US by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minnesota after a number of meetings with key groups from around the country and Europe. There are a number of people around who were there at the beginning who know the full history that would be worth interviewing if that subject is of interest.

    Understanding the central role of Transfair International in helping to launch this in Canada and the US and the many contributions of Equal Exchange who invested much into this effort prior to the introduction of the certification by IATP is crucial background to understanding how this system has developed. In addition, the full story from Europe - including the first brand developments in the UK and the evolution of the various national versions of Max Havelaar labeling and of Transfair International - is important to tell since these were very different approaches that needed to be blended together over time. The history is very important - getting it accurate is crucial.

  • BY Valencia Joshua

    ON December 23, 2014 12:50 AM

    i think local certification by local organizations which is cheaper would be good for agricultural markets in developing countries

  • Keenen Altic's avatar

    BY Keenen Altic

    ON January 23, 2015 10:25 AM

    Given the educated status of the author it can only be intentionally misleading that the article proports the following lie:
    “the Dutch East India Company, operating for the benefit of the mother country in “the colonies,” were afforded monopoly privileges and protected from local competition by tariffs.”
    This statement implies that the Dutch East India Company was burdoned with paying tariffs. In fact, initially they were required to pay tariffs but the British government then exempted them from this tariff and subjected American colonists to a tax on stamps. Tariffs are beneficial to countries engaged in international trade because it is a way of taxing corporations to pay for public education and health care for all.

  • Dan Gleesack's avatar

    BY Dan Gleesack

    ON April 11, 2015 06:00 PM

    Keenan: Dutch East India Company ... protected from local competition by tariffs. I.e. ... they had to pay tariffs and dutch east india company didn’t. I.e. doesn’t imply that they were burdened with paying tariffs I.e. why u so pretentious??

  • Loren Curtis's avatar

    BY Loren Curtis

    ON May 12, 2015 09:50 AM

    Sorry, but it sounds Like corporate whining or every one deserves a trophy. I buy it because I can rely on the taste. If you can’t met the standards, tough!

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  • Wonderful site. A good read for the soul. We must take care of our wonderful planet and it will take good care of us in return.

  • I have read some qualitative research coming from the anthropological side of academia based on interviews with local coffee farmers in a coffee growing community (publsihed by Molly Doane and colleagues). I can not remember the details, but I do recall that the argument of this line of research was that coffee farmers have concerns over the sufficiency of incentives. Specifically, the added benefits may go toward establishing more sustainable practices, but not necessarily higher pay or better living/working conditions for the people working in these types of settings. So there is a potentially interesting dilemma- is it good enough for the workers/owners as it is supposed to be for the sustainable growth of their production?

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