All's Not Fair

Just Coffee’s Matt Earley on the complexities of fair trade


What exactly is fair trade?
The original idea of “fair trade” focused on small-scale farmers and cooperatives and creating a new and alternative model of trade. The idea was much more about a movement to change the logic of trade to make sure that people were valued as much as or more than making a profit. Unfortunately it does not mean one thing anymore—if it ever did.

Why is fair trade controversial?
Because, like a lot of great movements, it became successful because dedicated people built it from the grassroots up. When it began to reach a larger audience and to build a market share, it was—at least partially—co-opted by big companies and multi-nationals looking to green themselves and to make a buck. These companies have enough resources to directly affect the operations of the fair trade certifiers and to manipulate standards. As people have sensed this, fair trade has lost some credibility.

Why is fair trade so confusing to consumers?
Because it does not signify one thing. Two bags of coffee on a shelf making a fair trade claim could be completely different operations. One could be from a huge multi-national roaster that has no presence in the community it sells to or the one it buys coffee from; the coffee could come from a plantation with thousands of workers. The other bag could be a one-hundred-percent fair-trade, mission-based cooperative that pays more than the big roaster, has a presence and relationship with the farmers it buys from and is a positive force in the communities where it sells. And then there is everything in between. The fair trade claim does not, in the end, say much about the business practices of the company making it.

How does Just Coffee fit into the picture?
We view trade as an opportunity to build relationships with the other actors in the chain. We see coffee as a vehicle to create a change in how people think about what they buy, where it comes from and how they are living. We don’t use the standard fair-trade certifications and we consider fair trade just one aspect of who we are—we do not depend on it to completely to describe our approach anymore. 

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