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My thoughts on the Fair Trade Debate

I have been casually following the responses to the study completed at the University of London claiming Fair Trade does not do what it claims. I will openly admit right now that I do not have all the facts, so this is my opinion. Please feel free to comment so we can discuss.

The article by Nora Burkey posted on Daily Coffee News ( had one major point that I really grabbed hold of. I really don’t like adding large quotes, but I think she says it best:

“Fair Trade was never about paying a fair price to farmers in exchange for making sure that all their workers were treated well. In fact, Fair Trade was never equipped to manage farmers or development projects at all. Fair Trade began with a commitment to buy only from cooperatives. By belonging to an organization, small landowning farmers can achieve direct market access through said organization instead of selling their coffee to coyotes for next to nothing. This type of system allows farmers ownership of their production and land, and not just their labor.”

At this point in the piece, Burkey is defining what Fair Trade is. Why would she have to do this when it is part of larger discussion? I think it is because people, like me, who are reading these articles and blasting people on the internet don’t actually know what Fair Trade is and what its ultimate goal is. This struck me because it made me realize I had a false understanding of what Fair Trade is. I don’t think I am the only one either.

My understanding was that the goal of Fair Trade was to make the lives of the farmers better. It was a little piece of piety. I looked at it more like I was donating to a non-profit, a charity effort. I never knew that it is more like “buying local” to support businesses. Fair Trade is not charity; it is buying to empower the little guy.

I’m not sure how I came to my false perception of Fair Trade. I choose to blame the current marketing approach of Social Guilt (thank you Sara McLaughlin for being so effective). Our society has become much more conscious of our decisions affect the world around us. So it is not unreasonable that consumers see pictures of malnourished farmers and are told to buy Fair Trade that they come to the conclusion of Fair Trade = helping starving farmers. I also think modern people are more willing to support good/helpful efforts that do not inconvenience them. So it makes sense that they would support starving farmers by only purchasing a particular brand of coffee. Everyone else should too!

The issue is misinformation breeding more misinformation, resulting in a study that claims Fair Trade does not do what everyone believes it should. Then we have scandal, as this study is being viewed.

I think I am still on the fence about Fair Trade. I am not against it, but I have not bought into believing it is the only thing anyone should ever buy. I do believe in sourcing responsibly and ethically. Right now, I believe most people are using Fair Trade as an easy out, rather than putting in the work that would be required for sourcing in such a way.

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