“We’re better than fair trade.” “We’re beyond fair trade.” “Ours is direct trade.”
If you’re a coffee buyer trying to choose your brand, chances are you’re familiar with these refrains. How, then, do we sort through all the seals, messages, and marketing promotions to make the right purchase? Clearly, we select our coffee by its quality, the flavor profile and roast, as well as how much comes out of our pocket. But for just a moment, if we set aside our personal taste preferences and economic realities, what do we look for next?
Is it the price which the company pays the farmer that counts? Or how many times the buyer visits the farmer and the relationship that is formed? Perhaps it is the size of the donation for a school or health clinic given to a farming community or a scholarship for a farmer’s child?
There are no obvious answers or roadmaps, no clearly demarcated rights or wrongs… in fact, one could argue that any kind of consumer-producer relationship built in the marketplace that is based on honesty, fairness and integrity already is a huge step forward in today’s hurried, impersonal, and materialistic world.
So how, then, do we sort through the claims? How do we choose?
Personally, what’s most important – and exciting – to me are business models that ignite and sustain the possibility of CHANGE. When a company pays a higher, fairer price to farmers, their standards of living rise and so does their quality of life. New opportunities arise and change becomes possible. Similarly, when farmers and consumers meet, other more subtle changes can occur. Many times consumers told us that their lives were transformed after spending just a few nights in a community with our farmer partners and their families. Changes in attitudes, world-views and perspectives flow from these exchanges. Our understanding of how others live and why, our connections to each other, and our responsibilities to one another also begin to deepen. Valuable new insights get sown, the results of which may be seen tomorrow or in five years.
These life changes are important and we should celebrate any company along the supply chain that strives to bring about these outcomes. But is it enough?
The kind of change I’m referring to goes an extra step beyond those that affect one or more individuals; it’s the larger-scale social change that can happen when people become organized. By working together, and creating a clear vision of the future that extends beyond themselves and their families, farmer co-operative members make investments in their businesses and improvements in their communities. They participate with other organizations in social movements to influence, improve upon, and change national trade and agricultural policies. In this way, organized and well-run small farmer co-operatives can acquire the economic and political power necessary to create lasting and deep-seated change.
When the Fair Trade movement began working with coffee, its leaders understood this vision and commitment to large-scale social change. Activists, progressive roasters and organized farmers recognized the tremendous inequities in the market and the potential for this model to create, support and foster a myriad of changes from higher standards of living and increased cross-cultural understanding; changes in business practices and purchasing behaviors; the empowerment of farmers and consumers; and local community development – here in the U.S. and abroad.
Small-scale farmers and their co-operatives were the heart and soul of the movement.
Why? Throughout Latin America and other regions, local non-governmental organizations, the progressive wing of the Catholic Church, radical governments such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and others understood that the deck was stacked against the rural poor. Many farmers worked long hours for little pay as pickers on plantations, indebted for generations to the landowners. Alternatively, some farmers were fortunate enough to have a few acres of land to try and make a living. In either case, the playing field was rarely level. Large landowners benefited from government support: credit, technical assistance, market access, roads, electricity and infrastructure. Small-scale farmers, on the other hand, were generally given no support and were at the mercy of middlemen, the infamous coyotes, and money lenders more interested in squeezing every dime than in giving someone a hand. This system favors the status quo as it keeps farmers divided so that they can’t gain economic or political power, and can’t organize for a higher price, invest in their community or make deep-seated changes.
And so, many people concerned with human rights and economic justice worked on behalf of, and along side, small-scale farmers to demand their rights – for land, credit, and the chance to organize themselves. The farmers’ struggles were long and continue today; much blood has been shed and many lives lost. Others have had to flee political repression and economic crises, leaving their families, communities and countries to forge a new life in the U.S. or elsewhere.
To really understand the key difference between Fair Trade, beyond-fair-trade, better-than-fair trade, direct trade, and just about every other kind of neo-fair trade, it’s important to look back at the historical roots of the movement… and then move forward with a deepened commitment to make substantial changes to the systems consumers and farmers operate in: economic justice, food, agriculture, trade, and the environment.
Why is this history important? The kind of change I want my consumer dollars to support is change which builds on this courageous past. Do my purchases, and ultimately my support, foster an environment for positive collective change or perpetuate the status quo? If I help one farmer, I can certainly feel good; if I get to know one farming family I can change my worldview. But what if I know that through my purchases, and the way I do business, an entire co-operative and their members’ communities can develop according to their own vision?
In a previous blog entry, “Small-scale coffee farmers: trading partners or suppliers,” I wrote about how our partner CESMACH chose to break a contract with an important U.S. coffee company, because despite being paid a higher price, the company’s practices would have reversed years of hard-won organizing efforts and community development successes. In Nicaragua, our Fair Trade co-operative partner, CECOCAFEN, acquired so much economic power, the farmers in surrounding communities – who were not CECOCAFEN members – began to better understand the market and successfully obtain higher prices from the local coyotes. In southern Peru, CECOVASA has become so strong that the coyotes no longer bother to work in the area. In northern Peru, our Fair Trade co-operative partner, CEPICAFE gained so much political strength, co-op members were able to get Marisol Espinoza elected to Congress where she has consistently advocated on behalf of small-scale farmers. When Hurricane Stan hit Guatemala and southern Mexico, and entire communities were flooded or cut off from all communication by landslides, washed out roads and destroyed bridges, the Fair Trade co-operatives Manos Campesinas, FIECH, and CESMACH were able to raise money from their Fair Trade networks in the north, organize their members into self-help groups, and get much-needed food and emergency medical assistance out to the communities.
Paying a higher price for a farmer’s best coffee and visiting the farmers are important actions and should be recognized as such. But only by sharing a common vision and working in true partnership to achieve this broader view, can more profound, structural change occur – change that happens when people stay focused on their dreams, keep the bigger picture in mind, work together and take risks. Fair Trade coffee – because it continues to support small farmer co-operatives – has the ability to be that engine; but not all Fair Trade is the same and not all “beyond and better than Fair Trade” is, in fact, “beyond or better.”
So, the next time you buy your coffee (and tea or chocolate), think about the company’s underlying message. Look beyond the labels and seals, and ask yourself what kind of change they are committed to and how deep that commitment goes. What change do you believe in? Changing the status quo is never easy and solutions aren’t always clear, but let’s challenge ourselves to ask the difficult questions.
Café owners, food co-op buyers, congregation members, and consumers who understand the broader level of changes that are needed and share this sense of urgency for action play a critical role in this movement. Together, we can use our purchasing, financial and political power to actively support and promote this model which seeks nothing less than creating strong local communities, a just food system, and a healthy planet.