Can you tell which of these “fair trade” coffees was grown on an estate? And does it matter?

Allegro french roast Bel Canto Estate Grown CoffeeYou may have heard that coffee carrying a fair trade label was grown by small-scale producers. Last year, for the first time, Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) allowed a fair trade label to be placed on coffee grown on large-scale coffee “estates,” in this case a 500- acre farm with 110 workers in Brazil. The logic promoted by Fair Trade USA is that workers often face unsafe working conditions and low wages. In one example of the way this argument is conveyed, a father works as part of a fair trade co-op, but there is not enough land available for his son then needs to work on a large farm as a farmworker. “Shouldn’t the son also benefit from fair trade?” asks FTUSA.

The more important question is what would most benefit that worker and others in his position? Is it certification, another form of on-farm monitoring, policy changes, or some combination of these? This is a question that businesses, farmers, workers, and advocates have been asking Fair Trade USA to address, but instead, Fair Trade USA made the unilateral decision that fair trade certification and labeling would most benefit these workers. And if you question whether FTUSA should be calling coffee from such large-scale farms fair trade, you may be accused of not caring about workers.

According to Fair Trade USA’s own story, within the first three months of certification, the workers earned $7250 in premiums, allowing a portion of the 110 workers to receive eye or dental exams. Allegro, a brand shoppers at Whole Foods may be familiar with, has $7 million in revenue annually. If Allegro, as a socially responsible company, knew that they were buying coffee from an estate where workers were in crisis, they did not need to wait until Fair Trade USA opened up a labeling option in order to invest a few thousand dollars to improve the workers’ lives. Dedicated fair trade companies commonly make this kind of commitment to workers without being otherwise compelled or motivated by a label or other market reward.

Brazil is a country plagued with unequal land distribution. Fair Trade USA is an organization with $11 million in revenues, an account in the Caymen Islands, and at least five executives earning more than $100,000 a year. Surely if they were interested in lasting, systemic change, they could devote some resources to addressing issues like land reform, land-grabbing, and unfair international trade policies that all contribute to the structural barriers keeping small producers and workers in poverty. Instead, their “innovation” strategy includes a way to reward large farms, giving them more advantages in the marketplace, and therefore protecting the status quo rather than working toward transformational change.

This is not just a theoretical discussion. There are small coffee producers throughout the fair trade system who are terrified that they cannot compete against large estates that are now carrying fair trade labels. The estate coffee pictured is the Espresso Bel Canto, which you probably could not tell from the pictures, because the fair trade labels are the same.

Let’s be clear about where this is heading. Workers voices should be included in these discussions and unsafe working conditions and low wages need to be addressed and addressed urgently. But it is not at all clear that the best way to address these concerns is through certification and a label that look identical to the one historically used as way to support small-scale producers.

Fair trade is a vibrant movement within the larger movement for sustainability and justice. But it is just a piece of the bigger picture. And fair trade certification and labeling is just a piece of the overall fair trade movement. The larger movement includes farmers, workers, and artisans around the world on farms, in factories, in restaurants, and on patios, all striving for what we at Fair World Project call a just economy. Various tools are used within the movement to influence markets, government policies, and corporate behavior.

One of the big challenges facing this movement is to figure out whether fair trade certification is the best tool within the just economy to address the concerns of workers on coffee estates. This dialogue has not happened in a meaningful way, despite repeated requests to Fair Trade USA, including a letter signed from a broad coalition of stakeholders last summer. This is part of the reason Fair World Project no longer recognizes Fair Trade USA as a valid fair trade label. It is also why we are supporting efforts we believe do have a clear benefit to all workers and farmers, such as efforts to reform trade policies. It is time to remember that workers and producers, not labels, are at the heart of this movement.


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