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 Organization and NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement).

Basically, Fair Trade is an international trading partnership that gives disadvantaged producers a chance to compete equitably. How? By providing better trading conditions, raising public awareness, and campaigning. In order to counter what often happens in conventional international trade practices, Fair Trade promotes:

• A fair price agreed to in advance by both sides, which covers true production costs while giving producers a profit. World market prices often cover 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 a safe workplace.

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

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

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

• Educating consumers about the entire concept, which includes identifying fair 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, they are quite different. Free Trade wants to get rid of all governmental restrictions such as tariffs, subsidies, and sometimes even health and environmental regulations. In other words, Free Trade doesn’t address issues such as ecological damage, abusive working conditions, or exposure of consumers to harmful levels of toxic substances.

Safe Trade also has its own angle. It focuses on trade practices that preserve biodiversity 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 discussed at Fair Trade diplomatic conferences, and has resulted in completely different treaties. Nevertheless, it helps establish a sound basis for Fair Trade by promoting a stable and safe environment.

So: Fair Trade, Free Trade, and Safe Trade. Got it? To sum up the bottom line 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 because it’s mostly the small, disadvantaged farmers who grow and sell it.It’s also a logical connection to organics because it attempts to use practices that fit into natural ecosystems. True, none of the terms organic, Free Trade, and shade-grown necessarily means that either of the other applies. But they do all aim for sustainability.

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

By contrast, shade grown coffee shrubs help preserve biodiversity (as do the shade trees over them). In addition, they live twice as long and the shade trees over them produce natural mulch that results in less need for replanting and chemicals. Some say that the flavor of shade grown coffee is less bitter because the shrubs mature more slowly and produce fewer coffee berries. 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 by Mexican coffee farmers in 1988. Their coffee was exported to the Netherlands and later to other countries, certified under labels such as “Max Havelaar,” “TransFair,” “Fairtrade,” and “FairTrade Certified.” All are controlled by the Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International, to let you know how your coffee was grown and distributed.

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

In any case, the concept of Fair Trade has become sexy enough to gain the attention of the big coffee players. Still, it’s only about 1-2% of Starbuck’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 few of the others committing to organic, Fair Trade, and shade grown to varying degrees 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 world over. The system may lurch this way and that, it may be genuine in someways and decidedly not at others, and it can certainly get confusing. But it’s nevertheless moving forward. It really is.