More on Fair Trade

The debate is heating up on whether Fair Trade is really fair at all.  We will be posting opinions for and against the current “system” because what so many believe this “label” means….has many different meanings as we see how farmers are affected around the world.  Fair Trade is more than a “feel good” label.

Matti Foncha • I work with small growers in Cameroon, West Africa. In 2001/2002, we applied to Transfair USA for Fair Trade certification and got a 33 page questionnaire along with a hefty certification fee. 90% of our farmers then were either elderly and/or could neither read nor write English. Furthermore, we were asked to submit 3 years of audited financial accounts, etc. etc. Brief, we found the whole system (as interpreted by Transfair USA) to be missing the point – they did not seem to understand the special situation of small farm holders, and did not appear capable of breaking away from the post-European industrial revolution view of trade – world trade.

Our approach since then has been to take a look at the coffee supply value chain from the point of plant flowering until the coffee is brewed. Fairness then becomes a question of how value is assigned along this journey – typically a process covering 18 months. Farmers apply hard and skilled labor for at least 12 of those 18 months to eventually deliver parchment coffee. Dry milling and delivery to world markets take the remaining 6 months.

Our coffee travels to markets through a collaborative process – Collaborative Trade, whereby collaborators have important roles to play to ensure the timely delivery of quality coffee. Our process – built from the farmer to the market distributor, provides for farmer-ownership of the coffee along the full supply chain. Farmers and their collaborating facilitators take market risks on one another in this whole process. Financial investments in farmers permit the farmers and their families to have a decent quality of life during the process until the coffee is sold. (Quality as well as supply and demand determine the market value of the coffee.) When the coffee is sold, financial investments in farmers are repaid, inputs by collaborators are compensated at market rates, farmers are paid any shortfall to bring them up to the local market point for their coffee… It is at this point that the “profits” coming from the sale of coffee are calculated and evenly distributed between the farmers and their collaborators.

This system is complex, however, because it is rooted on human values of mutual respect, equality and trust, participants – especially the farmers – know that they are responsible for their own destinies, and most importantly, the product of hard labor and skill has finally been “de-commoditized”. Coffee from our farmers is not classified as “raw material”, but is awaited by those that value the process as a special gift to be cherished each season.

For us, that is fair trade, and it is fair to all, including the consumer!!

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