A guest post by Manya Janowitz
I was raised in a liberal, progressive community, and my parents and friends were aware of the issues surrounding globalization. My family shopped primarily Fair Trade when possible, bought produce from the CSA farm right next door, and my mom even took part in the Seattle WTO protests when I was young. Yet, while I was very familiar with the Fair Trade logo, I didn’t actually understand what fair trade was: I didn’t look past the label.
My lack of real understanding of an alter-globalization movement prompted me to study Fair Trade and more personally, my role as a consumer of ethical products. I wanted to understand what fair trade really means, and I was curious if other people too had only a surface understanding of the movement. In my research, conducted for the class Sociology of Globalization taught by Dr. Nicki Lisa Cole at Pomona College last spring, I found that this was largely the case. Most people knew that Fair Trade was “fair”, “ethical”, perhaps that it “guaranteed farmers a living wage.” But, few people had any deeper knowledge of the fair trade movement or the many Fair Trade organizations that compose it.
On November 29, 2012, the Nomad, in her role as Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology, participated in a panel discussion titled “Ethics and Labels: Considering Consumer Activism” hosted by the Pomona Student Union at Pomona College. Other panelists included Mayra Orellana-Powell, owner of Catracha Coffee; Matt Warning, Professor of Economics at University of Puget Sound; and Mike Perry, owner and roastmaster of Klatch Coffee. The panel was moderated by Charlotte Dohrn, a student at Pomona College.
Whether or not to allow plantations into the fair trade model is not the only debate raging within the specialty coffee industry. Another, and more wide-reaching debate, is whether certification schemes benefit producers, or if they are in fact barriers to trade. While millions of small-scale coffee producers have benefitted from certification systems like Fair Trade, Organic, Bird Friendly, and Rainforest Alliance over the last twenty years, they have not done so without critique and resistance. Drawing from conversations I have had recently with producers, cooperative administrators, exporters, roasters and distributors, this post addresses the dark, untold stories of certified production and trade.
Since 1999 Fair Trade USA, formerly TransFair USA, has brought Fair Trade certified coffee to the U.S. market. The organization, which manages the licensing and distribution of products in the U.S., introduced millions of consumers to the principles of Fair Trade. They did so primarily through coffee, which accounts for over seventy percent of the American Fair Trade market. Through product branding and advertising campaigns, even an award-winning documentary film, people in the U.S. have come to associate the Fair Trade label with democratically organized farming cooperatives, a minimum price that on average is higher than the price per pound paid on the open market, and social, economic, and environmental initiatives in producing communities. But, in January, 2012, Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) changed the rules dramatically. While they continue to market the small-scale farmer and the cooperative as the face of the brand, the base of it now is transnational corporations and large-scale plantations. So much for the little guy.