Can Fair Trade Coffee Be More Fair?

© Fair Trade USA

This is a guest post from Miguel Zamora, Director of Coffee Innovation at Fair Trade USA.

According to U.N. poverty statistics, 2 billion people live on less than $2 USD a day. Even though I work for Fair Trade USA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping farmers and workers fight poverty through trade, I have to ask myself if we’re really doing enough to change this sobering reality.

In my role as Director of Coffee Innovation, I’m tasked with exploring if and how Fair Trade can evolve to reach farther and be more impactful—how it can help far more people earn fair prices and wages; work in safer conditions; and improve access to healthcare, clean water, and education.

© Fair Trade USA

While numbers are a critical indicator of measuring “are we doing enough?” I learn the most through the people I meet and work with every day. I’m on the road for several months each year, visiting coffee growing communities in places like Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, and my home country, Ecuador. I have the unique opportunity to meet with farmers and farm workers with incredibly diverse backgrounds and experiences. I listen to their stories, meet their families, learn about their work and find out how Fair Trade makes (or could make) a meaningful difference in their daily lives. Though they are all united through coffee cultivation, every story is different – as distinct as the coffee varieties they produce.

Fair Trade Can Do More

The things I learn on these visits are critical to determining best practices for innovation—for exploring a more inclusive Fair Trade model. Don’t get me wrong, we’re deeply proud of all that has been achieved since we opened our doors in 1998, but there is still a fundamental inconsistency that I believe prevents us from tackling global poverty in a big way: Not everyone who wants to commit to a journey of social and environmental responsibility can be part of Fair Trade.

Many people I meet who work in the coffee fields can’t participate in Fair Trade because they don’t own land and therefore can’t join a farmer cooperative or association. The same goes for the group of people who represent the largest majority of the world’s coffee farmers: independent, small-scale coffee growers who are also not part of a producer organization – even if their farms can meet and exceed the rigorous Fair Trade standards. One of the hardest parts of my job has been turning deserving farmers and workers away because there is no place for them in Fair Trade.

When I explained this to Maria Filha de Jesus, a 60-year-old coffee farm worker in Brazil, she poignantly told me: “I am just like a small-scale farmer, but without land.” I had to ask myself--why does a system aimed at alleviating poverty leave behind those who need the most support in coffee? Why should Maria be excluded from Fair Trade when her neighbor down the road can participate, provide more opportunities for his kids and have better access to healthcare?

Something’s got to give. That’s why the 60 dedicated employees of Fair Trade USA, and many businesses, nongovernmental organizations, co-op leaders, farm workers and conscious consumers, stand firmly behind the idea that all farmers, workers, and their families deserve the opportunity to join the Fair Trade system. That’s why we’ve made a commitment to doubling the impact of Fair Trade for farmers and workers by 2015—an initiative we call Fair Trade for All.

Opening Fair Trade to New Groups: Would It Work?

To this end, we’re now implementing a series of pilot programs that test the feasibility of applying Fair Trade standards to new groups who historically have been unable to participate. We currently have four pilot projects underway in Brazil, Costa Rica and Colombia, and hope to do 10-20 over the next two years.

In our first pilot – a 500-acre, family-owned, 100 percent organic farm in Brazil called Fazenda Nossa Senhora de Fatima – farm workers are already seeing tangible change. The farm passed a rigorous inspection by Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) and became the world’s first Fair Trade Certified coffee estate in January 2012.

After making their first sale to Allegro Coffee Company a few months later, the farm’s 110 workers democratically elected to invest their first Fair Trade community development premiums in eye and dental care. Many workers, including Maria, just received their very first pair of eyeglasses. Maria says,

I have never owned glasses before. For years I knew I needed glasses but I could not afford them. It was becoming harder and harder to do my job because I could not see well. Earlier today I could not clear the weeds properly to prepare the field for the harvest and for the workers to pick the coffee easier. Now that I have these eyeglasses I will be able to continue working and can see better at home.

I have seen this kind of transformative power across the globe: flower farm workers in Ecuador have built their homes and paid for life saving cancer screenings for women; coffee farmers in Nicaragua and Mexico have invested in scholarships to send their young people to college; and farm workers in Brazil have been able to buy land and become small-scale farmers. These are the opportunities we want for ALL farmers and workers who are willing to meet and adhere to the same rigorous social and environmental standards as those currently in the system.

It’s been almost a year since we launched this initiative, and while we don’t have a crystal ball to tell us what the future will bring, we’re learning more and more every day and sharing our stories as they come. Through my travels and experiences, I now know that Fair Trade can and simply must do more—that it is a scalable model with the power to make a greater dent in global poverty.

When Fair Trade can be more inclusive and provide transformative impact to all, that’s when we’ll have achieved our mission.

Tags: Carbon Footprint | Fair Trade | Farming