Fair Trade Coffee, Sustainability, and Survival
346 pages (University of California Press, 2007)
In Brewing Justice, Michigan State University sociologist Daniel Jaffee covers a wide range of terrain, traveling from the living rooms of indigenous coffee farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico, to corporate boardrooms in Seattle. His lively, well-researched ethnography takes the reader inside the world of Fair Trade coffee to uncover the politics at the interface of markets, social movements, and coffee farmers’ valiant struggle for cultural and economic survival. This book deepens our collective understanding of these issues as we navigate the heated debates surrounding the future of Fair Trade.
Coffee has emerged as an intriguing test case to assess globalization’s social effects and its transformative potential. Between 1999 and 2004, around the same time when consumers were developing a thirst for a more conscious connection to the culturally diverse and ecologically fragile landscapes that produce the 2.5 billion cups of java they drink per day, commodity coffee prices were sliding from $1.20 per pound to as low as 45 cents. The consequences of the crisis were evident in coffee-growing territories everywhere. In Ethiopia, a household of 12 saw its annual income plummet from $320 to $60.1 In Central America, the World Food Programme declared a food security emergency in coffee-producing regions.
Civil society organizations and coffee companies alike have placed high hopes in the potential for Fair Trade and other eco-labeled coffees to buffer the consequences of the next crisis. They continue to push the $11 billion specialty market toward self-sufficiency; some even hope it will approach the $80 billion conventional industry.
Despite the Fair Trade movement’s lofty goals, few scholarly studies have gone beyond anecdotal evidence and descriptive reviews to assess systematically its social effects, to interrogate critically its politics, and to uncover its persistent paradoxes. Brewing Justice fills that gap. It is the result of two years of interviews, observation, and surveys. The empirical evidence that Jaffee marshals demonstrates that Fair Trade’s impacts are important, but limited. His analysis explains the strains between the Fair Trade movement and its market- oriented actors.
One of Fair Trade’s central paradoxes is that it sets out to achieve social justice using the same market mechanisms that impoverished small producers in the first place. Although this hybrid approach causes activists, producer organizations, and business leaders to live in ideologically uncomfortable spaces, it may hold the potential to transform market-centered relationships from the inside out.
Jaffee points out the tension that exists between the mission-driven Fair Trade companies and social movement leaders who are seeking to advance Fair Trade as a strategy to reform or even transform the market, and the profitcentered companies who are more likely to use Fair Trade as a tool to increase their profit margins or to get access to new markets. His cautionary warning reveals his stance on corporate engagement: “If you are going to dance with the devil, you had better lead with a firm hand.”
Fair Trade coffee sales have grown dramatically, but total sales figures tell us little about the ability of Fair Trade to deliver on its stated empowerment and social development goals. In answer to this fundamental question, Jaffee quotes a farmer: “Mejor pero no muy bien digamos.” Better off, but not great. The central four chapters of Brewing Justice are an extended case study comparing the living conditions of 25 farmers who sell to conventional markets and 26 households connected to the Michiza Cooperative, whose organic coffee is sold on the international Fair Trade market.
Jaffee’s findings show that when the coffee crisis was at its worst, organic and Fair Trade coffee producers received prices that were double what the conventional markets paid, but the organic and Fair Trade producers also had higher costs. Although farmers linked to Fair Trade cooperatives were more likely to have an adequate food supply, about half of all surveyed farmers (selling to both Fair Trade and conventional markets) experienced food shortages. International migration rates were also high among both groups.
Despite their persistent struggle, most of the farmers in the communities that Jaffee studied remain inspired by the initial intercultural collaboration that occurred when indigenous peasant organizers united with a Catholic priest to create this Fair Trade cooperative. The unanswered question is whether Fair Trade can extend this collaboration across the inequality that divides rich Northern markets and impoverished Southern producers.
The final three chapters of Brewing Justice return to Jaffee’s larger political project, which seeks to save Fair Trade from its own success by redirecting attention to the coffee farmers’ pressing needs and recovering the movement’s radical roots. His recommendations for strengthening the movement include cultivating stronger alliances with the global justice movement, setting minimum coffee prices that keep up with inflation, and increasing the transparency and accountability of the only Fair Trade certifier in the United States, TransFair USA. The movement – as well as Jaffee’s analysis – would also benefit from paying closer attention to the collective voice of producer organizations. (It was the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Smallholder Fair Trade Cooperatives that pushed Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International to increase the minimum price by about 5 to 7 percent earlier this year.) We also need an analysis of the specialty coffee industry (including the many roasting companies that sell more than 20 percent of their coffee as Fair Trade), and a comparative analysis of the constellation of Fair Trade certifiers.
Although producer cooperatives, coffee companies, social movement organizers, and consumers have used Fair Trade as an effective tool for change, much work remains. So far, none of the certification systems have managed to stop migration, assure farmers’ food security, or significantly reduce economic poverty. The movement must get stronger and push for even higher standards if we hope to create meaningful partnerships with small-scale farmers in the transition from survival to sustainability.
1 Charis Gresser and Sophia Tickell. “Mugged: Poverty in Your Coffee Cup.” London: Oxfam International, 2002.
Christopher M. Bacon is a co-founder of the Center for Social Economy in Nicaragua and a researcher with the Agroecology Group and the sociology department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.