(Un)Fair Trad(ers)

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Fair Trade.  It’s a phrase that most of us have heard and are intimidated to look any further into than absolutely necessary (because quite frankly and in the name of everything convenient- wouldn’t it be nice to just leave well enough alone and go with the flow) but since we’re delving anyway- let’s give it a shot. 

I went into this investigation pretty much blind, only having heard rants from one college roommate in particular about the tragedies of companies that mislabel and mislead their customers into believing that they care about the world because that’s what the trendy yuppie that overpays for their coffee wants to believe.  They want to believe that somewhere out there in Columbia there there’s a happy farmer getting fair pay for their life’s work.  The very thought almost makes me want to go out there and be a coffee farmer myself.  How magical… and to not have to worry about waking up in the morning must be a major relief!  Soy milk and unrefined beet sugar in that (of course) please.

I started with a Google search.  I thought that the link bringing me to the Fair Trade Federation might be a good place to begin.  There I was informed that “to become a Fair Trade Federation member, businesses undergo a rigorous screening process that evaluates their practice of all nine Fair Trade Principles. These fair trade principles are based on the internationally accepted principles of the World Fair Trade Organization, which grew out of a global consensus. They are considered the gold standard in fair trade.”  Sounds great.

More information on the site includes the history behind the vision of fair trade all the way back to 1946 with Edna Ruth Byler and her work with Puerto Rican women and their lace.  A truly noble tale.  But times they are a changin’ right Bob?

It appears that both Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts made it to Fair Trade USA’s  list of fair trade partners (although I did notice a name or two missing from this list so I wonder when the last time it was updated).   I also noticed that only one coffee brand came up under each of them when I clicked… apparently being Fair Trade Certified doesn’t mean you have to pay a “fair” price for everything you buy. 

In a NY times article, A Question of Fairness by William Neuman it became increasingly obvious that just like anything else, the Fair Trade issue is not without it’s flaws, in fact, it is riddled with the imperfections that come with big business.  It seems that Fair Trade USA, “the movement’s leading advocate in the United States” is proposing to place its seal on products with as little as 10 percent fair trade ingredients, compared with a minimum of 20 percent required in other countries.”  And once again, those small farmers that this program was originally meant to support and protect are falling to the wayside as big plantations sign on to be fair trade certified. 

More in this article, “Starbucks, Green Mountain and other coffee companies will be able to become 100 percent fair trade not because they’ve changed their business practices one iota but because Fair Trade USA has changed the rules of the game,” said Dean Cycon, founder of the Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Company, in Orange, Mass.  (He was the one that inspired the conversations on fair trade in my college house when he came to speak to the business school about fair trade our senior year).  

And what’s easier than going to Starbucks for a quick cup of coffee?  I even took the liberty of looking up some vegan friendly treats  that I could enjoy right from the PETA website which boasted their morals.  It seems wrong to bash Starbucks right now but it’s kind of difficult not to when considering that only “about 8% of the coffee used in its global operations came from fair trade farms in 2010.”

It’s just hard to swallow that fair trade doesn’t mean what I thought it meant.  Nothing is 100% but 8%… come on.  So here I am once again stuck somewhere between my morals, convenience, and my wallet.  I can be sure that what I brew at home will be a safe choice because I’m not a huge company that purchases many different coffees at one time and tried to turn a profit.  Hell at the end of the month I’m lucky if I break even. I took the liberty of finding a little list made by Annie Bell Muzaurieta  for everyone in case they were interested but as always, read and ask questions and write to the company!  They’ll be happy to gain or retain a customer.

My plan is to go into my local health food store and ask some questions about the coffee I see in their bulk bins.  I think that the most important take away is the many layers that this issue has (and I’ve only spoken about coffee here although fair trade applies to many different things from clothing to jewelry and even chocolate!) and how important it is to ask questions instead of blindly accept things.  I think that may even be a layer that I’ve peeled away on myself.  As exhausted as this topic makes me, I think I’ll wait until I get home to have a brew. 

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