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Economic Development

Is Fair Good Enough?

As Fair Trade USA changes its certification standards, a tempest is brewing among those in the coffee industry who see technology and transparency as the means to lift farmers out of poverty.

Is it right for Fair Trade USA to open certification to large plantations versus “small” farms, or to certify a product that contains only 10 percent fair trade ingredients versus the 20 percent requirement of Fair Trade International? Is this more fair or less fair? The question, covered in a recent New York Times business story, is really moot and endlessly debatable. The real question is: do certification schemes succeed in lifting poor farmers out of poverty? This is the value proposition to which fair trade lays claim and for which consumers and all those in the supply chain pay a premium. The debate around shrinking percentages and large plantations versus small farms only serves to make consumers increasingly jaded as they come to realize that the certifications they have relied on don’t have the power to achieve the good they were promised.

Helping small-scale coffee growers succeed in their efforts to work their way out of poverty requires first and foremost the trade’s commitment and dedication to building win-win partnerships with small growers. Secondly, it requires a willingness from the supply chain partners to welcome transparency by committing to full traceability—all the way down to the farmers purportedly being helped. All of this can lead to what I refer to as “traceable-transformation.”

The process all starts with a relationship—a relationship with your coffee farmer. Consumers are already on board with this simple paradigm. It’s now up to the coffee trade to rise up and meet this expectation.

In the end, consumer choice empowered by the transparency that communications technologies provide trumps certification schemes. Many of the remote small-plot farmers we work with at Growers First Coffee have cell phones—even those who live six hours from a paved road and in villages with no electricity or running water. This is a global trend, with mobile phone subscription rates in poor countries climbing yearly. If you really want to know how your farmer is doing, these days you could call him (or her), if you knew who he was.

Ethical concepts like goodness and fairness begin to make sense when we start talking about particular people, real people with real names and stories. How many farming families have escaped poverty? How are their lives better? What are their names? Where do they live?

Here is an example: last February my colleagues and I at Growers First had the privilege of sitting down to lunch with Rito and Maria Sierra and their five children in the remote village of La Cayetana in Honduras. When we met them five years ago, they had sold their annual coffee crop for $95. They had no access to clean water, slept on a dirt floor, and cooked from a poorly ventilated kitchen. We began to trade directly with Rito and Maria through their co-op and connected them with agronomic education and microcredit, empowering the Sierra’s to improve their lives and the lives of their children.

Last year, their annual crop sold for $1,500. Their house now has a concrete floor; they have a well that provides clean water, beds for the children, and an eco-stove. This Thanksgiving, Rito experienced the joy of philanthropy by leading the effort to provide a concrete floor in the home of his neighbor, Chabelito.

Stories of transformation such as these are happening for many of the 657 coffee farming families with whom we've built a relationship. With the extensive data we collect about them and their villages, we are able to trace improvements in income, education, health and the environment. Through scan-tag technology, we turn this data into stories and make them available to consumers. Our hope is that others will learn about and replicate our model, so that many more coffee farmers can be empowered and many more consumers can share the fulfillment of knowing that their choice matters. We are not alone. There are a growing number of players in the coffee industry who are committed to more direct trade and relationship based models, but there is also a need for much greater expertise and commitment to both transformation and traceability.

The Fair Trade USA and International models have played an important role in making consumers more aware that their choices make an impact on other peoples’ lives. They have succeeded in creating a market for “virtuous” products, but now people want that virtue proved. Consumers are demanding traceability and transparency. Will the trade rise to the challenge?

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