Fair Trade and the Problem with Labels

Coffee is one of the foodstuffs that I buy with regularity for which there is no acceptable locally produced substitute.  It is one of the downsides of postponing my relocation to the Hawaiian Islands.

Barring an experience that turns me on to the subtleties of roasted dandelion root or ground chicory I am stuck purchasing coffee from faraway lands.  Oh sure, when I am feeling flush with cash I will outlay the money for coffee from Kona or Ka’u on the Big Island.  Heck, I even like the inferior coffees from the island of Kauai.  Most of the time, however, I am left to choose between coffees grown in Central and South America.  Will it be the Mexican Chiapas or the Guatemalan Dark?  Maybe the Colombian Supreme?

This where labels come in.  I cannot personally know the people growing my coffee, unless it comes from Hawaii or I undertake a trip south of the U.S. border, so I depend on third parties to assure that the coffee I am drinking aligns with my values.  This is the point of labels like organic, shade grown, rain forest certified, fair trade, etc.

Apparently, there is a problem in the world of fair trade.  The organizations that certify foodstuffs and other consumer goods as “fair trade” are somewhat balkanized.  This trend is exemplified by the split between Fairtrade International—the most well-known certifier—and the fledgling Fair Trade USA.  Both may label a foodstuff fair trade, but the methodology for determining if something is “fair trade” may be quite different.

In the case of Fair Trade USA and coffee there are several issues that bring into question the entire act of labeling something fair trade.  First, Fair Trade USA engages in the practice of labeling coffee grown on large estates or plantations which runs counter to the popularly held assumptions of many fair trade customers that the goods they buy come from smaller producers.  Second, there are somewhat confusing standards for products that contain some fair trade ingredients.  For a good rundown of that issue check out this article by Corey Hill in the East Bay Express.

The biggest problem seems to be that plantations could be considered “fair trade” when the products they ship contain as low as 10% fair trade beans .  Suddenly, everyone is serving 100% fair trade coffee because someone has changed the rules of the game.  Huh?  This reminds me of when some states during the 2000s seemed to have great performance on standardized tests and the results seemed counter to anecdotal evidence of student performance.  The problem?  The states had lowered the standards for the test to a level that was laughable.  Sure, more students were passing but it was not comparable to an earlier, more difficult exam.  Just because the label says something is fair trade does not mean it is better.  Ugh!

This story goes to the heart of why the local food movement is so important.  If you know the actual producers of the food you purchase and you interact with those producers there is no need for a third party labeling scheme that can be co-opted by an unscrupulous entity.  You buy produce from Farmer X because Farmer X does things the way you like it.  Plain and simple.

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