We were recently asked via Twitter whether our coffee beans are Fair Trade or not. While we attempted to say briefly what our stance was, it is difficult to fully explain a complicated and nuanced situation within the confines of 140 characters so we thought we’d reply via the blog where we can be more detailed.
Our current beans come from Honducafe, a family-run organisation which works with small farmers.
They are certified by USDA, Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade and others. However we cannot honestly say that we knew this when we bought them. Honducafe have a poor website with little information. We talked to our supplier (whom we trust) and found out what we can about them via forums. However it took us a long time to find their certification status. It isn’t always stamped all over a product like a status symbol!
This is not to say that we don’t care about Fair Trade. Ideally we would like to go out and source our beans for ourselves, and only use beans from an ethical source. Maybe if we get to a situation where we can afford the regular trips out we will.
In the meantime we do what we can.
Finding information about the provenance of coffee beans is difficult. It took a lot of digging to finally find out that our beans were indeed certified by reputable bodies.
You might say it is worth it to do this digging, however Fair Trade and similar schemes are complicated and having that label doesn’t always mean that the product is the best or the most ethically sourced available on the market.
Many smaller farmers who may have excellent working conditions are unable to participate because to do so would incur costs they can’t afford.
In our opinion, there should be no need for a Fair Trade label – all farmers should be paid a living wage but because of the ill balance of the world, that doesn’t happen. We grow enough food to feed the world but people still go hungry; it’s complex and as with any commodity that the whole world wants but isn’t available for everyone to grow themselves (coffee beans in this case), it creates tension and even wars.
Putting it like that, why would anyone drink coffee? The truth is it contains a drug and we want it. We put a lot of effort into making it exactly how we want but probably less thought into how it was grown and Tacopowell is right to question us on it.
A great thing about fair trade is that if the price collapses which markets do from time to time, then farmers still get a minimum price for their goods. However as a buyer this costs us more and unfortunately this extra cost doesn’t go to the producer. It goes to middlemen who run the co-operatives who have organised the fair trade label for their farmers. This might seem only fair since they have taken the trouble to do all the admin for it but fair trade status is only given on a snapshot of a farm’s current circumstances. Some studies have shown little to no improvement in the state of the local area after the majority of farms sign up to fair trade (see further reading below).
Lets say Nottingham has magic beans that can only be grown here because it’s the hallowed turf of Robin Hood who blessed this land. People start to grow these magic beans and the whole world wants a piece; very soon the market is full of traders and it’s difficult to navigate. Co-operatives are then formed between a few farms, some merge to become bigger farms others stay at it by themselves. It’s a natural progression.
Currently the supply chain looks like this:
Producers > Wholesalers > Retail > Customer.
The price reflects everyone getting paid – or should do.
Reports start to come out that some of these farms are treating their staff badly and an outrage ensues. The public demand that Nottingham sort it out, but free marketers who say that nothing can be done as local laws are being abided by, although arguably they aren’t fit for purpose. We come in and say “this won’t do” and launch the Robin Hood Alliance which aims to make sure farms are treating staff well. The public love it, problem solved.
As the alliance grows we need more help, more admin is taking place and we have our own overheads. We need to spend time and money promoting and telling people what The Robin Hood Alliance sticker is while making sure it isn’t abused.
It’s also what people want on the coffee they sell and buy because it takes the guess work out of making an informed choice on every product you come across. We start to get more queries than we can deal with, we can’t keep it in-house any more and we have to get people in to help.
It is now costing more overheads to vet these people to ensure that they will hold true to the values and standards we launched the alliance on. We start printing the certificates by the thousands. We’re a global brand.
Right now, the supply chain is Producers > Robin Hood Alliance workers > Robin Hood Alliance HQ > Wholesalers > Retail > Customer.
It’s a natural progression that something so complex needs more people to work on it. A farmer comes to me and says “We have a magic bean plant; please can I have your certificate?”
We reply “are you part of one of the co-ops as they will set up for you”
“I’m very small, I want to work for myself with my name on it as I’m very proud of it”
“OK” we say, “if you pay for our costs then we will do the audit and set you up”.
“I can’t afford your costs; I’m very small and right now very poor”.
“Well come back once you have sold a few and you can afford us”.
Another farmer comes to me and says “We have ten magic bean plants, please can we your certificate? We can pay the moderate costs although we are poor but we can soon make it back with my ten plants and your certificate”.
The difference here is that the poorest farm cannot afford our Robin Hood Alliance certificate but the moderately poor one can. My label is spreading so much so that the smallest of start ups want to be a part of my label but because we can’t work for free then we can’t help them as much as we might want.
Larger farms with my certificate can buy out the farmer with one plant and still have the certificate but the small farmer now works for Magic-Bean-Corp under their name. Or he could keep at it himself and not ever go to the alliance as he is hearing reports that farmers who are part of the alliance are only getting a few percent of the extra 20% it costs in the shops because of all the overheads.
The once one-planter is now earning even more than the alliance farmer per yield. Paying the costs to join the alliance will bring him and his workers no further benefits but will cost him more.
Or the alternative scenario is because he was so poor and unable to compete he is no longer in business – he was driven out by the alliance.
We are not against fair trade but it is such a complicated area that we cannot say outright that we would only use beans with the specific Fair Trade stamp. Even if we did, we couldn’t use their branding as we aren’t audited to be fair trade in that sense and it isn’t a business priority getting that status; we would have to raise prices further than the extra cost of beans to make back what it would cost us in extra admin and auditing.
However, we do try to find out what we can. Honducafe was difficult to find information about and they are a relatively big supplier. Smaller suppliers are even more difficult. We would, without a doubt, refuse to buy beans from a supplier we have reason to doubt or who we know does not treat their workers well or pay them fairly. We decided to trust our supplier and his purchasing decision; we hope you can trust in our decisions too.
If you read the daily news, you’ll see there is always a story about a large corporation tax status being less than ethical but fully within the law but we also bet that somewhere they can point to a “we are good label”. In fact one of the verification labels a coffee supplier can get is from Starbucks whose tax arrangements are far from ethical, makes me wonder where else they cut corners and what reassurances their certificate can offer?
My argument is; if all your products and services are made by those with the passion for what they do then there would be no need for a Fair Trade label because we’d be automatically fair to each other anyway. But the world isn’t that way, the label helps, but it is far from the whole story.
We all benefit from living in a world that produces very cheap and OK quality but from a questionable provenance – consider the clothes you’re wearing and the device you’re reading this blog post on. But we want to be part of a better system, we try to do what we can.
We could go on and we want this debate to continue. Next time we are looking for beans we will balance the concerns of all points of view. However we don’t want to find ourselves in a position where we are using a label for the sake of having the label rather than because the beans are the best we can buy from a trusted source.
http://www.griffithsspeaker.com/Fairtrade/Ethical%20Objections%20to%20Fairtrade%20web.pdf (PDF 815KB)