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Seeking Justice Through Trading Fairly

February 4, 2013, 9:54 am

by Jennifer Yeatts, Higher Grounds Trading Company

Ever wonder what all the hullaballoo is about in the world of fair trade coffee? Well, pour yourself a cup and read on.

The concept of fair trade has been around since the 1960s, when NGOs (non-governmental organizations) across Asia, Africa, and Latin America realized that the poverty-stricken producers of goods sold on the international market rarely got any kind of support. So the NGOs formed some groups to facilitate exports & advocate for a fairer system, in which producers could receive those much-needed social services.

The fair trade movement caught on in Europe in the ‘70s and soon spread to the United States, where it gained traction—which you probably know if you’ve been a part of the cooperative food movement for any number of years. Small-scale farmers, previously exploited by mid-level traders, began learning sustainable processing methods and successful business models. Similar to the motivations for energizing the cooperative grocery movement, the people investing in fair trade weren’t in it for the money: there was no money. A Dutch NGO decided to label these fair trade products, to set them apart from other items on the shelf and to give more companies the opportunity to get involved. Within a year of its debut, coffee labeled as “fair trade” had a market share of nearly 3%. This labeling system has been a boon for mainstream fair trade business. Demand for specialty coffee kept growing – so coffee companies could afford to keep paying farmers a premium (higher than the average world price) for their beans.

In 1998, the U.S. company TransFair was founded to negotiate terms between international coffee producers & stateside sellers. Many companies began to see the benefits of fair trade labels, since U.S. consumers had a growing interest in supporting small farmers. The TransFair label began to show up on more & more items.

The motivation for this expansion was honorable: creating more opportunities for growth of fair trade practices. Higher Grounds was the first Michigan company to sell 100% fair trade coffee. But the result was not all positive, since a company could source just a small portion of its products from fair trade suppliers & still use the same logo. Through this “green washing,” control of the fair trade system began to shift into the hands of bureaucrats, multinational companies, & big plantations. That’s where the controversy begins.

Now “fair trade” has become merely a catchphrase, & what was once a powerful movement has been co-opted by profit-seeking corporations. In February 2011, TransFair renamed itself “Fair Trade USA,” applying for trademarks of that name & the term “Fair Trade Certified”: a blatant attempt to exclusively brand a term that is supposed to encompass the whole fair trade movement. Some brands use as little as 2% certified fair trade ingredients in their products but are still able to take advantage of the “Fair Trade Certified” ingredient seal—the same seal you see on products that use a majority or even 100% certified fair trade components. Fair Trade USA gets the same licensing fee whether a company uses a minimum or maximum percentage of those ingredients. And those companies benefit from the marketing while not actually engaging in the kind of socially-just, sustainable, & environmentally-conscious practices that used to define the fair trade movement. Fair Trade USA’s profit-driven act and its resignation from FLO, the international fair trade labeling organization, represents its divorce from that global movement.

Higher Grounds believes fair trade should be about building long-term, face-to-face relationships with the farmers who grow our coffee & that these relationships should be mutually beneficial, not just profitable for first-world corporations. We support fair trade but not Fair Trade USA—an entity that used to share our values but now seems more interested in a quick buck. We stand alongside the farmers who work hard to supply our product, & we stand adamantly against the corporations who’d prefer to profit in the name of that good work but not in solidarity with our coffee-growing friends around the world.

Higher Grounds wasn’t built because someone wanted to make a profit, and we don’t believe that simply slapping a “fair trade” sticker on our coffee bags makes us a good company. In fact, fair trade doesn’t even begin to describe our philosophy. We believe that the finest coffees are grown by the best of friends. That’s right, friends: we visit the farms; we meet with growers—even if that means traveling dirt roads, past washed-out bridges, through riverbeds, and up mountainsides. We drink coffee together, talking about the best ways to keep their farms sustainable & profitable. These producers have long struggled to stay afloat—small-scale coffee farming isn’t exactly a lucrative livelihood. Coffee farmers put in countless hours for an average yearly income of less than $300: that’s less than 2% of what a full-time worker on minimum wage in the U.S. makes in a year, & pocket change compared to what many of us spend per year on coffee alone . (Those two $3 lattes a week? Take a second to appreciate the luxury.)

Global fair trade standards dictate a “living wage” for these farmers, which means they’re guaranteed a certain price for their product despite fluctuation in the market. But that price isn’t enough. It’s not enough for families to afford access to clean water. Not enough for children of growers to attend school. Not enough to implement sustainable methods & develop communities with models for growth, not just models for hanging on by a thread.
HG goes beyond fair trade to be direct & long-term in our relationships (with people, not just company names on paper) and transparent in all our business transactions. Go to fairtradeproof.org to follow the path each of our beans follows from field to cup. You can trust us to work for growers’ benefits far beyond what that minimum standard can provide. So go ahead—refill that cup.


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