Shopping for a better world

Fair Trade empowers farmers and ensures sustainable farming practices

Francesca and Rupero Minaya of Peru are members of the Pachamama Coffee co-op based in Davis, Calif.

Francesca and Rupero Minaya of Peru are members of the Pachamama Coffee co-op based in Davis, Calif.

Courtesy Of Pachamama coffee


You may have noticed a small rectangular “Fair Trade Certified” label on coffee, tea, chocolate and other products. That label is making an impact on the lives of farming communities in developing nations, assuring consumers that farmers and farm laborers receive fair payment for their work, while promoting sustainable agriculture.

“We like to think of the grocery cart as the most important vehicle for change,” said Anthony Marek of TransFair USA, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland and the only Fair Trade certifying organization in the United States.

Farmers producing Fair Trade Certified products must fulfill requirements designed to strengthen communities and protect people and the environment. While world commodity prices often fail to even cover the price of production for many products, Fair Trade standards ensure that farmers and producers are paid a base price (cost of production) plus a fair-trade premium, both set by the Fairtrade Labelling Organization, a Germany-based international organization whose members include certifying agencies around the world.

Additionally, farmers often are required to organize into cooperatives, which are then required to reinvest some of the premium earned from fair-trade sales back into their communities. Sometimes that means building schools for children, and in one community, Marek said, it meant buying new winter coats to replace the threadbare coats of the village’s elderly residents. Decisions about the money must be made by the entire cooperative—farmers and laborers alike. Fair Trade Certification also requires that laborers have safe working conditions and freedom of association.

Products with the Fair Trade Certified label now include coffee, tea, cocoa and chocolate products, sugar, rice, vanilla, flowers and bananas, and farmers must follow sustainable growing practices when producing these goods. For example, the United Nations’ “dirty dozen” chemicals are forbidden, as are genetically modified organisms. Coffee must be shade grown. Around 85 percent of FTC products also are certified organic, which earns growers an additional premium, Marek said.

Fair Trade Certification is a radical notion in industries where farmers are often not paid a base price, labor conditions are generally poor and children forgo school to perform difficult, sometimes dangerous, farming tasks.

The idea of fair trade developed after World War II, when church groups had the idea to sell handcrafted goods made by refugees and others living in poverty around the world. By trading directly with artisans and offering them a fair price for their goods, these church groups, organized into what were known as Alternative Trading Organizations, made a direct impact on people’s lives.

The fair-trade concept is increasing in popularity as awareness grows. Research indicates that once people know about Fair Trade Certification, they’re more likely to buy FTC products—much more likely, in fact, than consumers who know about organic products are likely to buy organic. According to TransFair USA, sales of FTC coffee in the year 2000 made up 0.6 percent of specialty coffee sales, and by 2007 that number had risen to 7.05 percent. FTC coffee sales now make up 3.31 percent of all coffee sales (specialty and otherwise), up from 0.2 percent seven years ago.

But the fair-trade movement is not without its critics, who have argued that the movement encourages the purchase of foreign produced products over locally produced ones and attempts to develop a separate trading system rather than changing the flawed mainstream system. The fact that companies like Sam’s Club, McDonald’s and Starbucks have begun carrying FTC products has drawn criticism from within the movement itself. In his book The No-Nonsense Guide to Fair Trade, David Ransom described this as a “slippery slope.” Mainstream companies have been accused of profiting from the value added by Fair Trade Certification without passing that profit along to producers. And while some mainstream companies now carry FTC products, they continue to carry conventional products, as well, thereby also profiting from trade that does not guarantee producers a fair price.

Still, fair trade is, “One of the most positive aspects of globalization,” Marek said. “What Fair Trade Certification brings in terms of market access is a pretty amazing concept.” Growers in isolated areas historically were forced to sell to middlemen who paid very little. Fair Trade Certification enables them to sell directly to companies that feel the label adds value to their product.

In his book, Ransom acknowledged that fair trade is certainly fairer than the alternative, but he urged concerned consumers to educate themselves about the differences between companies. Ultimately, critics inside the movement believe that fair trade itself must become an even fairer system.

One company may be leading the way in creating that system. Based in Davis, Pachamama Coffee is incorporated as a cooperative in California but is owned by members of coffee cooperatives in Nicaragua, Peru, Mexico, Guatemala and Ethiopia. Pachamama’s FTC organic coffee is available in grocery cooperatives on the West Coast, including the Davis Food Co-op and Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, and directly to consumers through the Pachamama Web site.

Thaleon Tremain, general manager in charge of the cooperative’s U.S. operations, said the fair-trade movement has helped with “putting the spotlight on important issues,” but feels there’s more to be done. “Like anything, you want to investigate the company you’re buying from,” he said, echoing Ransom. For Pachamama, the certification label is not the point. Instead, the producers have started their own company, in which they have control over the export, marketing and sales of their products.

At a time when consumers increasingly are interested in having a connection to where their food comes from and those who have grown it, Marek equated fair trade to a “global farmers’ market.” Meeting the farmer is part of the appeal of shopping at farmers’ markets.

“We want to look the farmer in the eye, and most people can’t really do that with Central American farmers,” Marek said. “Fair Trade Certified does this, and that’s what the label stands for—someone does go to the farmers’ gate annually.”