When you take a sip of coffee bought from Brown Dining Services, Blue State or the Bookstore, you may notice a unique flavor. The brew itself is unremarkable, mediocre or worse, but it's fair trade coffee. That pleasant aftertaste is entirely psychosomatic. You have just bought coffee with an injection of what Brown University and Blue State serve best: smug self-righteousness.
Fairtrade is a company that certifies certain coffee products as "fair." Its mission statement proclaims that it seeks to promote "justice and sustainable development" in order to "develop (the) full potential" of coffee producers. Many consumers believe that Fairtrade coffee is organic, promotes stable prices for producers and helps small family farmers thrive in an industry dominated by corporations so soulless they have dared employ economies of scale. Fairtrade's reputation is dearly bought and more than a little inaccurate.
Let me preface this column by saying that I am completely enamored of using economic freedom to achieve social justice. The number of similar ventures — in which consumers pay a premium for a good in exchange for a guarantee that it was produced in a manner they deem virtuous — has burgeoned. Utilizing market forces to effect our values is less onerous than calling for government coercion. If Brown is to vote with our dollar, however, we cannot be content with swallowing the public relations line of Fairtrade without some due diligence.
Even a cursory examination of the Fairtrade business practices and guidelines reveals that the certifiers are anything but a politically neutral force for good. For starters, only about 10 percent of the premium we pay to sip Fairtrade coffee actually gets passed along to the producers. Given that Fairtrade sets the price of their coffee at nearly double the market rate for coffee of similar quality, this begs the question: where is the money going? The 2006 annual report of the Fairtrade corporation sets publicity expenditures at around 1/4 of total expenditures. The 2008 Trustees Report saw a marked increase in both PR expenditures and the creativity of the accountants; the single largest expenditure of 2008 was on "Public Education and Awareness." The second largest expenditure was "Marketing and Product Development."
These two line items — and the fact that they were deemed distinct is itself questionable — constituted over half of the total expenditures of the corporation. Both activities were meant to ensure that Fairtrade has a monopoly on self-righteousness, and both were classified under the heading "charitable activities." In a very real sense, we are paying a premium for little more than the luxury of being told we are doing the right thing. Are we?
The guidelines Fairtrade has set to qualify coffee producers are onerous, illogical and often exclude the very type of growers that many Fairtrade coffee consumers believe they are supporting. Fairtrade coffee growers are barred from practices as simple as hiring a laborer for any period exceeding a year.
One might suggest that, though the methods are crude, these guidelines bolster family farms, but Fairtrade will not deal with individual family farms. In order to qualify for the certification, coffee growers must re-organize into large cooperatives consisting of hundreds of land-owners. These cooperatives must dole out between $2,000 and $4,000 to Fairtrade in order to be ordained "fair." If the cooperative qualifies, then they must pay annual recertification fees on top of a percentage of each pound of coffee sold. Any profits made by Fairtrade growers belong solely to the cooperative, regardless of the needs or the contributions, whether quantitative or qualititative, of individual growers. Fairtrade has deemed that the proper way to divvy out any profit is to give each farmer one vote on its proper usage.
Another popular misconception surrounding Fairtrade is that the certification has something to do with being "organic." This is erroneous. Fairtrade certification has no substantive crossover with organic guidelines. Around 40 percent of Fairtrade certified coffee does not meet U.S. standards for organically produced goods.
When Brown University decided to buy coffee exclusively from Fairtrade, we made the decision to boycott small and large family farms who refuse to re-organize into collectives. We made the decision that large-scale coffee plantations — regardless of who is running them, or how workers are treated — are unethical. Perhaps worst of all, we affirmed that twenty-four employees at Fairtrade coffee know how to organize labor in a way that benefits the needy better than any individual coffee grower or an entire market. Consumerism as a moral act is a compelling notion, but one which requires serious research about the actual effect on those we so sanctimoniously purport to help.
Will Wray '10 can be found at Starbucks.