Organic, Fair Trade, Shade Grown Coffee, June 06 | What Exactly is Fair Trade?


Fair Trade is a broad term used by social justice, peace,and environmental groups to draw a contrast with “unfair” practices,and sometimes with Free Trade as promoted by the World Trade Organizationand NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement).

Basically, Fair Trade is an international trading partnership that givesdisadvantaged producers a chance to compete equitably. How? By providingbetter trading conditions, raising public awareness, and campaigning. Inorder to counter what often happens in conventional international tradepractices, Fair Trade promotes:

• A fair price agreed to in advance by both sides, which covers trueproduction costs while giving producers a profit. World market prices oftencover only part of production costs, the rest being covered by subsidies,tariffs, etc.

• Humane working conditions. That means no child labor or sweatshops,equal pay and opportunity for equal work by women and minorities, and asafe workplace.

• Fair producer access to markets, often through more direct linksto consumers.

• Long-term relationships based on dialogue, transparency, and respect,providing producers with stability and security.

• More sustainable agricultural practices, where applicable; Fair Tradealso applies to products other than food.

• Educating consumers about the entire concept, which includes identifyingfair trade products through independent certification (as I saw on the café counter).

What is “Free Trade” and “SafeTrade?”

Although both Fair Trade and Free Trade seek to increase world trade, theyare quite different. Free Trade wants to get rid of all governmental restrictionssuch as tariffs, subsidies, and sometimes even health and environmentalregulations. In other words, Free Trade doesn’t address issues suchas ecological damage, abusive working conditions, or exposure of consumersto harmful levels of toxic substances.

Safe Trade also has its own angle. It focuses on trade practices that preservebiodiversity and don’t harm ecosystem services (e.g., wetlands thathelp prevent flooding) or deplete biological reserves such as fisheries.It also tries to prevent global climate change. It’s not usually discussedat Fair Trade diplomatic conferences, and has resulted in completely differenttreaties. Nevertheless, it helps establish a sound basis for Fair Tradeby promoting a stable and safe environment.

So: Fair Trade, Free Trade, and Safe Trade. Got it? To sum up the bottomline for each, Fair = nobody gets cheated, Free = no government restrictions,and Safe = protects biological resources.

Shade-Grown Coffee

Now, where does shade-grown coffee fit In?

Shade-grown coffee has become a case study for Fair Trade, partly becauseit’s mostly the small, disadvantaged farmers who grow and sell it.It’s also a logical connection to organics because it attempts touse practices that fit into natural ecosystems. True, none of the termsorganic, Free Trade, and shade-grown necessarily means that either of theother applies. But they do all aim for sustainability.

Until about 30 years ago, all coffee was “shade grown” becauseit’s naturally a shade loving plant. Then full-sun hybrids were developedwith higher yields, which allowed the development of massive agribusinessplantations. But critics say it came at a price, as these plantations greatlyreduced biodiversity, increased soil erosion and deadly mudslides, and pollutedthe environment with increased chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

By contrast, shade grown coffee shrubs help preserve biodiversity (as dothe shade trees over them). In addition, they live twice as long and theshade trees over them produce natural mulch that results in less need forreplanting and chemicals. Some say that the flavor of shade grown coffeeis less bitter because the shrubs mature more slowly and produce fewer coffeeberries. The result: flavor that’s more concentrated and mellow.

Fair Trade In Relation To The Bigger Picture

A number of initiatives over the years have aimed at empowering small,marginalized farmers, but the Fair Trade movement per se was started byMexican coffee farmers in 1988. Their coffee was exported to the Netherlandsand later to other countries, certified under labels such as “MaxHavelaar,” “TransFair,” “Fairtrade,” and “FairTrade Certified.” All are controlled by the Fairtrade Labeling OrganizationsInternational, to let you know how your coffee was grown and distributed.

Thus the principles of Fair Trade and organic have become more and moreintertwined, to the point where about half of all organic products soldinternationally are also certified as Fair Trade. But just because a productis labeled “fairly traded” or some such, it doesn’t necessarilymean that it’s certified. A list of credible certification labelsis given in the references.

In any case, the concept of Fair Trade has become sexy enough to gain theattention of the big coffee players. Still, it’s only about 1-2% ofStarbuck’s sales, and their Free Trade brand is neither organic norshade grown. However, they do sell shade-grown organic coffee. Ahold USA,Proctor and Gamble, Dunkin Donuts and Green Mountain Coffee are just a fewof the others committing to organic, Fair Trade, and shade grown to varyingdegrees and in various combinations.

It’s all part of a gradual progression toward a more healthy, natural,and truly sustainable system of food production and distribution the worldover. The system may lurch this way and that, it may be genuine in someways and decidedly not at others, and it can certainlyget confusing. But it’s nevertheless moving forward. It really is.


For more in-depth treatments of the history of Fair Trade as it relatesto a number of other subjects, see:

Definitionof Fair Trade

AreFarmers Getting a Fair Price for Fair Trade Products?