I don’t drink coffee and never have, so you’ll have to excuse my ignorance. However, a recent article in MadTable titled “Madison’s local food news” said local coffee producers are angry at the organic certifying organization Fair Trade. So angry, in fact, one member said they are “angry like a family member stabbed you in the back.”
So what’s got local coffee cooperatives all up in arms? Fair Trade USA has recently moved forward with a decision to allow corporate coffee exporters to become certified under their brand.
Since Fair Trade certification is gearing itself toward corporate interests, local importers and roasters feel like they are abandoning their standards and have started looking for other certifying bodies with more principles.
Let me first say, as I think anyone would, I am pro socially-responsible food. But give me a break here. Fair Trade USA is a business, and by allowing importers like Starbucks and Green Mountain Coffee to become certified with it, the company made a whole lot of profit. How much profit? Certainly more than Madison producers give it. Fair Trade was looking out for its own interests, and rightly so.
No organization can uphold lofty principles without having to look out for its bottom line. And who is to say Fair Trade USA won’t use the profit it made with the “evil” corporations to further fund “good” coffee plantations?
Why the scare quotes around “evil” and “good?” Everyone knows large-holder-produced, non-organically certified coffee is worse for the environment. In coffee, the premise of organic certification doesn’t necessarily mean your company is environmentally and socially responsible. Inherently, mono-cropping systems take a toll on nature, whether it’s corn, soybeans or, yes, coffee.
By poring over one of the sites, spp.coop, that MadTable lists as a “good” coffee certification cooperative, I can’t determine what the criteria are for small-holders to become certified. Not only do you need to speak Spanish to understand the site, but what qualifies a farmer to become accepted? Is it having a wild bird conservatory in your coffee fields? Is it engaging in the shade-grown system, where fruit trees grow above the coffee bushes? Is it paying your workers U.S. minimum wage?
Another co-op, Just Coffee, makes its bank statements available for transparency. That’s all well and good, but if a group does not outline what practices it requires for a farmer to become certified, the consumer doesn’t know what he or she is paying extra for.
So if we can’t tell what we’re paying for, then one certification company is just as good as any other. Even if this means they’re willing to certify some larger entities like Starbucks and Green Mountain Coffee. What customers pay for in fair trade certification is peace of mind – the assurance that someone, somewhere, is making sure your coffee is held to some kind of standard.
If we, as buyers, are not informed about what exactly this certification entails, then we are in no position to pooh-pooh Fair Trade USA for taking on a bigger client. If you really feel a social responsibility to your products, find out your coffee’s certification criteria. Then you can proudly buy a coffee that endorses women small-business owners or uses profits to send rural children to school, or whatever it may be. But don’t get hung up on whether Starbucks is a member of the team.
Taylor Nye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in biology, archaeology and Latin American studies.