|What is Fair Trade all about?|
Fair Trade is a certification program created to pay fair prices to commodity farmers around the world, particularly in less developed nations. In the United States TransFair USA is responsible for verifying and certifying that cooperatives of small farmers receive a fixed price for their coffee sufficiently above production costs (currently $1.26 per pound) permitting farmers to maintain economic sustainability, regardless of commodity price swings. TransFair USA works strictly with small farmer cooperatives. Fair Trade organizations provide credits, education and other assistance programs to help develop farmer infrastructure.
Any roaster can purchase and sell Fair Trade certified coffees by paying a small fee for the certification. There is no doubt that this certification makes a huge difference for many small coffee farmers around the world. Members have been able to progress, improve their education and develop investment in their infrastructures.
In my view Fair Trade is one solution in a world requiring many, each working in cooperation with the other and evolving as each learns from the other. Fair Trade is limited to small farmer cooperatives. Medium and larger farmers, many of whom have the welfare of their workers fully at heart, cannot participate and thus find themselves at the mercy of a market paying well under the cost of production for several years in a row now. They are losing their farms. So are many small and tiny farmers – who can at best sell a minute share of their production as Fair Trade because their combined supply far exceeds demand for Fair Trade, no matter how aggressively it tries to grow.
Fair Trade has not yet tackled the problem of anonymity in coffee. Commodities are faceless, bulked products and the coffee market. Specialty Coffee is still, for the most part, anonymous and commodity-based. Unlike the market for wine and even tea, the price structure for coffee thoroughly reflects its commodity status. Whereas wines and teas boast a huge selection of qualities ranging from a few dollars per unit to hundreds, prices for coffee, for the most part, remain static within a very narrow price band with little flexibility and less incentive to produce the stuff of legends, let alone high quality. To date, a Fair Trade farmer is still dependent on the organization, not on the acquired desirability of his or her name and reputation. There is as yet no graduation from the Fair Trade umbrella.
Terroir™ will sell any Fair Trade coffee - if it matches the quality levels we seek. This has been the problem so far. The more bulked a cooperative’s production is the more average and generic its quality is. We do, however, see changes on the horizon. The Cup of Excellence™ program in Nicaragua has awarded quite a few top prizes to small farmers whose boutique lots have been specially chosen and prepared by Fair Trade linked cooperatives.
Other organizations offering certifications of social-economic significance, as well as ecological, are coming into being. One such is the Rain Forest Alliance, which sets everything from wage to environmental standards.