Fair Trade certification

What is Fair Trade coffee?

Fair Trade USA logoIn the United States, Fair Trade certification is granted by Fair Trade USA, a non-profit organization that began certifying coffee in 1998 and has since included many other products, ranging from tea to chocolate to fruits and spices. It uses the logo at right (redesigned in 2012) to identify certified products. Similar organizations control Fair Trade certifications in other countries.

Fair Trade International logoOn September 15, 2011, Fair Trade USA announced its resignation from Fair Trade International, the international association of fair trade organizations (the Fairtrade International logo is shown at right). The resignation took effect on December 31, 2011, so Fair Trade USA has now embarked on a different course from the rest of the world's fair trade organizations.

Not surprisingly, the split has been controversial. Fair Trade USA defends it as part of its Fair Trade for All initiative that aims to expand the scope of fair trade products. Critics say Fair Trade USA will do that by allowing coffee produced on large estates and plantations, harvested by transient workers, to gain the certification, instead of limiting it to the small-grower cooperatives that qualify under the world system. Opponents of the change say it is impossible to ensure transient workers at these large operations are getting the "fair" wage that is the centerpiece of fair trade. Instead, they see this as a dilution of the Fair Trade standard that will allow large corporations who sell high volumes of coffee to use the Fair Trade label. (See the resources at the bottom of the page for links to more detailed discussions of these issues.)

What are the environmental standards?

Standards in the U.S. are now in flux, due to the split with the international organization. Worldwide, Fair Trade standards encourage sustainable agriculture practices, but farmers do have some leeway. Most Fair Trade coffee is also certified organic, for example, but agrochemicals can be used by those not certified as organic. Most (but again, not all) Fair Trade coffee is shade grown under natural tree canopies.

Farmers must also follow sustainable practices for disposing of hazardous and organic wastes, maintain buffer zones around bodies of water, and minimize water use, avoid erosion and conserve the soil.

What are the labor standards?

Again, standards in the U.S. are being revised. Historically, the very foundation of Fair Trade certification was the establishment of a minimum price. A guaranteed minimum price keeps small farmers in business and prevents the decay of rural communities that rely on agriculture. It enables more families to send their children to school, rather than having them work in the fields.

Effective April 1, 2011, the minimum price set by Fairtrade International for washed arabica coffee beans was increased to $1.40 per pound. Another 30 cents is added if the coffee is also certified as organic. An additional 20 cents, called the Fairtrade Premium, is collected and is used to fund social and business development projects in the producing communities. One fourth of that premium is set aside for efforts to improve quality and productivity. These prices are paid to the farmers' cooperatives, which then distribute profits after expenses. Not all coffee grown by small farmers meets the standards for these minimum prices.

Fair Trade farms must also meet labor standards such as paying a minimum wage to workers, allowing workers to organize, and ensuring health and safety standards.

What's the downside?

Because Fair Trade USA is revising its standards and its approach to certification, it is hard to assess the program right now. It seems likely that Fair Trade USA's changes will address one of the common criticisms of the international program, which is that only cooperatives of small farmers can participate. Individual farmers, small or large, cannot get the certification on their own.

Critics of Fair Trade USA's split are concerned that standards will be watered down. As with Rainforest Alliance certification, for example, a product may be eligible to use the Fair Trade label even if only a small percentage was grown under the Fair Trade standards. In a sense, this represents a philosophical divide between those who believe higher standards are important and those who believe broader participation (i.e., including more producers) is ultimately more beneficial.

From a completely different perspective, proponents of free trade argue that price controls may benefit a few but at the expense of many. Some, especially in the U.K., are turned off because they believe the Fair Trade organization there is too preachy and spends far too much money promoting itself.

How does the coffee I buy get certified as Fair Trade?

Inspectors visit the sites to determine if the Fair Trade criteria are being met. Followup inspections are done annually.

More resources: