The Fair Trade Finish Line

A little while ago my frustration with Cadburys advertising led me to try and sum up my frustrations with Fair Trade in 140 characters. The best I could do was,

Fair Trade – the absolute minimum necessary to get people to stop questioning how you source, or pushing you to do better. Not enough.

The advert that had sparked it off was one I had seen on the underground, and it was the language more than anything that frustrated me:


So there you have it.  A moment of joy!  As if they had reached some pinnacle of sourcing, some great achievement instead of doing the absolute minimum to satisfy the public’s questions about the ethical nature of their sourcing.  No transparency, no open traceability, but don’t worry – we’ve got a logo so don’t worry about a thing.  This BBC article explains the move to Fair Trade that Cadburys made, though the second half could make you cynical about their motivation.

This post was sparked by a short conversation today.  I had popped down to Gwilym’s cart on Columbia Road, because the splendid Jenni Bryant (who many of you will know from Gimme!) was down there working and I wanted to work a little too.  A customer started asking about the WBC – Gwilym has a competition branded Aurelia there – and it turned out to be Nick Francis, one of the two guys behind the film “Black Gold“. We had a little chat about the film, about what I thought of it, about its relevance to the specialty coffee industry, about their goals behind the film.  Interestingly many people criticized him for not being sufficiently pro-Fair Trade in their eyes, while the specialty end no doubt felt like Fair Trade got too much good press and not enough was said about traceability, direct trades, relationship coffees and paying a sustainable premium price based on quality.

As we talked about Fair Trade he opened his newspaper to a full page advert from Starbucks, which many in the UK will have seen recently, proclaiming how proud they are that all their espresso drinks are Fair Trade. I think we shared a frustration here.  No doubt it is better for Starbucks to pay FT prices, if they are more than they were paying before.  However – a purchaser of coffee that large has an opportunity to go over and above Fair Trade.  A few of the mills I visited in my origin trips had sold to Starbucks, most under the a premium program.  a  Herbazu, the farm in Costa Rica whose coffee I used in the WBC finals, used to sell to Starbucks for a premium price – money that helped them build a micro mill, vertically integrate and continue to increase their quality.  The only complaints I heard were that Starbucks demanded open books, to see where every single penny of the premium went – and thus it was annoyingly bureaucratic.  Beyond that Starbucks was considered a great buyer.

I have no doubt that only a relatively small percentage of Starbucks coffee was sourced at a premium like this.  (Update:  I have been corrected on this – see end of post.) However, that is unlikely to change without pressure on them from their customers.  Switching to Fair Trade, and the lack of public understanding about what Fair Trade really means and guarantees, will no doubt alleviate the pressure on them to be ‘sufficiently’ ethical.  I just don’t see ethics as being something you can do by half.  That said – what surprises me is that after the harassment that Starbucks have taken from Costa recently, that they don’t turn the tables and start focusing on Costa’s ethical sourcing.  (Costa commits to sourcing only 30% of its espresso blend through the Rainforest Alliance certification, and says nothing about how it sources the rest.)  Nero dodge the issue on their website – though knowing what they were paying for their espresso blend a couple of years ago, I would have issue with some of their statements.  They’ve recently bought a roastery, and it will be interesting to see if taking their roasting in house results in a change to their buying practices.

I can’t help but feel that Fair Trade’s greatest deception, its most frustrating piece of consumer misinformation (purposeful or not), is that Fair Trade is the ultimate goal – not a starting point.  I’d have nothing against them pitting themselves as the absolute minimum expected of any company but I find it worrying to see it spun into being almost the exact opposite.  I don’t think there is any benefit to bashing Fair Trade, I don’t want to be one of those people, but we do need to agitate the industry – to start talking in very simple terms about how far we go and how much further we can go, as long as we take the public with us.

UPDATE: Thanks to Cindy for the figures and to Yara for telling me the name of Starbucks purchasing program is C.A.F.E. practices.  From Cindy’s comment:

” Actually, in FY2008, Starbucks purchased 77% of its coffee under C.A.F.E. Practices with the goal for reach 100% by 2015″

This is both good news and incredibly disappointing.  Good news that Starbucks buys so much of its coffee so well (in my opinion based on what I have seen at origin, and my limited conversations there).  Disappointing because I would see a move to Fair Trade as largely being a step backwards.  Why not shout about C.A.F.E. Practices?  Why not tell the world what you pay for coffee?  Why not use Fair Trade as a reference point, and then talk more about what you do?  This somehow seems like a caving in to public pressure, and not in a good way.  Again – I’d like to understand this better, thoughts and comments are very welcome.

  1. I thought it was called the Star Program, but I can’t find any evidence of it online – can anyone enlighten me?  (back)