A Bridgehead barista brews a cup of coffee. Courtesy of Joelle Guedon
A Bridgehead barista brews a cup of coffee. Courtesy of Joelle Guedon

Topics: Ethical Living | Environment

Fair trade coffee might not be as beneficial as you think

Buying fair trade coffee doesn’t hurt. But it doesn’t help as much as we might imagine.


Up until this June, I was a fair trade-coffee-buying machine — or zombie, as the case may be. Standing in the aisle at the Real Canadian Superstore with a preschooler in the cart and a seven-year-old whipping down the aisle, I’d happily shell out for whatever bag featured the swirly Fairtrade logo. It was a bonus if it was on sale.

This was a source of conflict in my marriage. My husband, who is both smart and cheap, doesn’t buy in to consumerist activism. The world’s problems, he argues, can’t be solved by shopping. I can reason both ways, but my “gut” felt better about drinking certified coffee. Until I read a review of a new book criticizing the entire certification framework: The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich, by the Senegalese economist and former Fairtrade International staffer Ndongo Sylla.

The review appeared in a dog-eared copy of the Economist, passed on to me by a relative. Fairtrade certification, Sylla’s reviewer summarized, doesn’t deliver what it claims it does. The effects on poverty are minuscule, according to Sylla, while allowing northern consumers and businesses to glow with self-congratulatory goodwill. I have since read the book — a dense, academic tome — but it was the original review that shook me.

I stopped buying fair trade. Not  for a particularly well-researched reason. The article just sucked the happy feeling away, and I was left feeling like the North American fair-weather do-gooder I secretly know I am.

Fairtrade International responded to Sylla last July with a press release. “We believe the core of Mr. Sylla’s critique is based on unrealistic expectations about what Fairtrade can and should aim to accomplish. . . . We do not claim to be a perfect solution to the many issues in international trade — but we are a part of the solution.”


In the pantry, I had a near-empty bag of 32 Lakes coffee — a local brand that is not certified Fairtrade but claims to be ethical and organic. So when I bought the big, cheap bag of Safeway espresso to replace it, I simply refilled 32 Lakes’ rustic-looking brown sack. In case anyone came over, I could keep my ethical “cred.” We saved about $7 a week.

I wanted to know: am I the only lefty in Canada secretly not buying fair trade? Far from it, evidently.

At best, the fair trade movement, embraced by church justice and outreach committees for more than 30 years, seems to be losing momentum. At worst, it’s coming under direct attack by a chorus of critics who share Sylla’s view of fair trade as a watered-down imitation of meaningful change.

Just two percent of coffee sold in Canada is Fairtrade certified. That’s after more than three decades of promoting fair trade by faith organizations, Ten Thousand Villages, Bridgehead Coffee, 10 Days for Global Justice and many others. The groups involved represent nearly 19 million Canadians.

Not long ago, the movement was unreservedly hopeful. Back in the late 1970s, Peter Davies, Rev. Stuart Coles, Angie Pritchard and Rev. Frances Combs formed the first fair trade coffee company in North America out of Toronto’s Bathurst United Church: Bridgehead.

Combs, the only living member of the group, is retired but still attached to Bathurst United as a volunteer pastoral associate. Fairly traded coffee, chocolate, tea, olive oil and bananas fill her pantry. In her bathroom, she uses olive oil soap from Zatoun, a company based in Richmond Hill, Ont., that trades fairly with Palestinians. She’s a regular shopper at the Ten Thousand Villages store. Her support, in other words, hasn’t wavered. But the intention, she notes, was never to take over the market.

“Our goal was to trade fairly, to give people a fair price for their labour — which was not the aim of capitalism,” she tells me in an interview from her home. “I grew up in Texas believing that racism is the greatest cause of unfairness. Later on, I realized it is poverty — poverty as related to racism and classism.”

Combs and the others approached 10 Days for Global Justice (a precursor of the KAIROS coalition), Oxfam Canada and the United Church General Council directly, but no one wanted to invest. By 1981, Combs and her team had scraped together enough money to import their first shipments, and Bridgehead was born.

The foursome visited Tanzania and Sri Lanka to solidify ties to tea and coffee suppliers. With a volunteer base in Canada, they began a mail-order business. Four years later, it was profitable, employing Canadians and paving the way for other fair trade companies. In 1984, the original four sold Bridgehead to Oxfam.

The independent certifier, Fairtrade Canada, began offering the logo program in 1997.

For a time, fairly traded coffee in Canada took off, but over the last handful of years it has plateaued, selling just under six million kilograms annually, in a country that consumes about 243 million kilograms per year. “I still buy fair trade,” says Combs. “I am totally convinced that’s how we ought to shop, as well as support organic farmers here.”

Perhaps no one in Canada talks as much to shoppers about fair trade coffee as Gwen Lavoie-Repeta, the boisterous manager of Ten Thousand Villages’ most successful Canadian store, in Winnipeg. Her team sells over $1 million a year of fairly traded products. I sought out Lavoie-Repeta to help interpret why Canadians buy so little Fairtrade-certified coffee. What’s going through our collective minds? Two things, she says.

First, many people who visit her store — shoppers who are actively seeking out ethical alternatives — don’t understand the fundamentals of what fair trade is. “When people come in, they’ll sometimes say, ‘This is a really cool place to shop! They send money to poor people,’ and I have to correct them. This is not charity. . . . This is about fairness, about farmers who want to be paid fairly for what they produce.”

Second, she says, for the vast majority of consumers, shopping with a conscience is the exception, not the rule. During the Christmas rush, Lavoie-Repeta says the volunteers at her store often complete $30,000 in sales in a single shift. And coffee is a hot seller. “That’s your feel-good coffee, a feel-good gift,” she says. “It’s not part of every day [for many of our shoppers]. . . . At Christmas, they want to make sure we insert the card about fair trade, so the gift is extra meaningful. It makes them look good, too.”

In other words, people don’t always connect their ideological support of fair trade with their actual shopping habits.

A completely different explanation for why Canadians aren’t buying fair trade coffee comes from Ian Clark, the director of coffee for Bridgehead. The company dissolved under Oxfam in the late 1990s but was revived as an independent chain of coffee shops with an online store in 2000. In its current incarnation, Bridgehead is bucking the trend — its 15 shops in Ottawa are thriving, and it plans to expand elsewhere in Ontario.

Clark believes Canadians generally have stalled on fair trade because quality isn’t top of mind for either consumers or producers. If you want consumers to pay more, he says, they have to want better-quality coffee. So does the farmer.

“Ninety percent of North Americans don’t drink their coffee as coffee,” says Clark, a longtime barista. “We do that because most coffee was and is really bad. It’s not something you’d want to drink without cream and sugar.”

After brewing thousands of Americanos and mochas over the years, Clark says meeting farmers in Central America was an eye-opener. “Suddenly I was in the highlands of Nicaragua shaking hands with producers. It was my first trip anywhere where incomes are low and there’s real poverty. I was just stunned into silence.”

The coffee farmers he met, producing some of the best beans in the world, don’t drink their own coffee, he discovered. They buy instant at the market because they don’t have the tools to roast or brew their own. While they follow the advice of agronomists for better quality and yields, the farmers are often as cut off from their own final product as northern consumers are from the producers in the South.

Clark’s vision for a better life for coffee farmers includes a continuous quality-focused chain that starts with farmers who appreciate and develop their own product, and leads to aware, coffee-appreciating Canadian consumers who can read on the package about the individual farmer who grew their beans.

That was Bridgehead’s original vision, and one the current company is striving to recreate, Clark says, with current campaigns introducing customers to two growers: Ramon Pablo of Guatemala, and Raphael Galvez of Mexico.

‘Fair trade is in solidarity with groups fighting for a better world. It’s important, but it’s limited.’

Maybe the Canadians who buy the 98 percent of coffee that is not fairly traded aren’t so uncaring after all. Fair trade is “an ethical fig leaf,” according to Gavin Fridell, Canada in Research Chair for international development at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax. The author of Fair Trade Coffee: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Market-Driven Social Justice (2007), Coffee (2014) and a handful of similarly themed books, Fridell considers himself to be a progressive. Like Sylla, his critiques of fair trade, he says, come from the left. He still drinks fairly traded coffee — through increasingly with a heavy heart. “I still buy it, because to not buy it is to concede to the idea that we’re just unethical consumers who don’t care. Fair trade is in solidarity with groups fighting for a better world. It’s important, but it’s limited.”

Consumers don’t have much power to shape the world, and individual consumers have virtually no power. To think otherwise, says Fridell, is to entertain a fantasy hinging on the presumption that fair trade will solve deeper systemic problems such as “the state withdrawing from things like health, education and managing prices.” At worst, in other words, fair trade enables the laissez-faire economic agenda by tricking Canadian consumers, like me, into believing we have more power than we do.

In the past, ethical coffee packaging was designed to educate the consumer about the real lives of farmers — something Bridgehead pioneered very well, Fridell explains. Packages now are about presenting happiness and fairness, he says, not about unfairness or poverty. They’re designed to make us feel good, not to help us learn about real systemic trade issues.

For example, he says, until 1989, the International Coffee Agreement kept prices stable for all 25 million coffee farmers in the world. In 2015, fair trade coffee provides the same function for just three percent of those farmers. Governments are supposed to protect people, Fridell says — both in the developing world and in Canada. It shouldn’t be left up to shoppers.

Other examples pervade his work. In Vietnam and Colombia, coffee-farming initiatives organized by government and farmers have resulted in significantly better livelihoods than what’s offered through northern-organized Fairtrade. In Ethiopia and Uganda, he writes, a new report shows that plantation workers are paid more and treated better than hired labourers on small Fairtrade-certified farms.

“People need to take on politics,” he says. “People don’t like politics. Politics is messy. It requires accepting imperfections.”

But Fridell saves his most chilling indictment of fair trade for last. “I worry that the left in Canada doesn’t have the ability to organize. So fair trade and ethical consumerism are a concession, because we can’t actually achieve the goals we’d like to attain.”

“Give the consumer a break,” he says. “Don’t ask them to walk down the grocery aisle with a kid on each arm and choose the right soup. We need to keep the weight of the world off our shoulders and acknowledge that as consumers, we don’t have the power to run things.”

Of course, Tom Smith, the executive director of Fairtrade Canada, argues the exact opposite. “One of our campaigns this year is called ‘The Power of You,’” he says in a phone interview from Ottawa. “An individual can make a difference. It doesn’t take a city or a corporation; it takes one person, when standing in the grocery aisle, choosing Kicking Horse or Ethical Bean.”

Smith knows the system isn’t perfect. Numbers are small — he doesn’t dispute the two percent figure. Because Fairtrade International doesn’t work with large plantations, big store brands such as Maxwell House and Nabob aren’t getting certified. Tim Hortons, by far Canada’s largest purveyor of coffee, with 77 percent of the market, has so far refused to work with Fairtrade Canada. Instead, it’s offering its own “ethical” brand: Partnership Blend. (Fridell notes that the only way you could be sure of what’s happening on the plantations is to “send a graduate student to Guatemala for three years and report back.”) Tim Hortons didn’t reply to my requests for information or interviews.

But retail-oriented Smith, who started working in his dad’s grocery stores as a child and went on to a career at Loblaws and Co-op Atlantic, believes the key to growth is simple.

First, similar to what Bridgehead’s Clark advocates, Fairtrade Canada needs to tell the fair trade story with more fervour. What is it? Why buy it?

Second, be patient. “Fair trade is a movement, and a movement moves,” he says. “I think Canadians are becoming more socially responsible. I believe in this system. I want people to go into Loblaws and understand that mark.”

In a church youth group back in the late 1980s, I performed in a play in which the “cousin” of television commercial character Juan Valdez arrives in a Canadian kitchen, takes a coffee-drinking, newspaper-reading bathrobed man on a magical tour of his impoverished plantation, and suggests he buy fair trade coffee forevermore. The man, delighted with his enlightenment, agrees. Everyone claps.

As a teenager, it seemed so obvious to me that my parents and my congregation could change the world by buying fair trade coffee (which they did: Bridgehead). Today, as someone with two kids in tow when I grocery shop, and a bank account that’s in line with other gen-Xers, I’m grateful that Gavin Fridell lets me off the hook for shelling out excess money. But he pushes us all into much more difficult territory — engaging with a world that’s politically and economically complicated and demanding.

Does hope rest in expanding Canadians’ buy-in to fair trade? Or in something else entirely?

Frances Combs, the lone surviving Bridgehead founder, is inspiringly bonded to fair trade. The hope, she explains, was never that the movement would subvert capitalism or change the trade relationship between every farmer and consumer. “You have to start somewhere, even if it is but a drop in the bucket.”

As I write this, I’m sitting in my local Starbucks, sipping a soy latte. Eight percent of Starbucks beans, Fridell notes, are now certified Fairtrade. Earlier today, I ground, percolated and drank several cups of Costco’s Kirkland brand Fairtrade-certified coffee. These are imperfect coffees, for an imperfect person, in an imperfect world.

In 2015, I’m sure Juan Valdez’s “cousin” would tell me, that’s not good enough.


Sidebar: What is Fairtrade certified?

Fairtrade certified is a set of standards agreed upon by Fairtrade International, which includes representatives from 24 northern labelling organizations (Fairtrade Canada is one) and the three major producer networks in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. After 50 years of various efforts to create and enforce standards, Fairtrade International formed in 1997 as an umbrella labelling organization.

If coffee farmers meet the standards, they can sell their coffee as Fairtrade. The companies that buy their beans can then use the Fairtrade logo on the bags of beans they might sell at Loblaws or Costco. The logo guarantees that Fairtrade has monitored the supply chain for adherence to Fairtrade standards.

Coffee prices can be volatile. So Fairtrade requires that farmers get stable minimum pricing. Under Fairtrade standards, one pound of washed Arabica beans fetches a minimum of US$1.40. If they’re organic, add another 30 cents. Fairtrade also pays a premium of 20 cents per pound, which goes to fund community projects such as schools, clinics, roads and other amenities.

Fairtrade requires minimum labour conditions, including the right to collective bargaining and freedom from discrimination. Fairtrade also sets standards for chemical use, water conservation, waste disposal and other environmental practices. It offers farmers access to credit and promotes long-term relationships between bean buyers and farmers.


Sidebar: Are Canadians ethical shoppers?

Most Canadian consumers aren’t thinking about social issues while they shop for groceries, says a recent analysis by Agriculture Canada. “Consumer purchase behaviour is complex, involving numerous trade-offs. . . . Rarely is a purchase made based on any single characteristic, particularly on the social issues related to the product,” states the 2012 report Socially Conscious Consumer Trends: Fair Trade.

However, the real issue seems to be the lack of faith most Canadians have in fair trade delivering on its claims. Just one in six Canadians “strongly agrees” that “My shopping choices can make a positive difference to farmers and workers in poor countries.” Though half of Canadians “agree” with that statement, it’s clearly not enough to convince them to shell out more for a bag of Kicking Horse or Just Us! — fairly traded coffee lingers at about two percent of Canada’s coffee market. That’s in spite of one in 10 Canadians claiming that fair trade’s influence is “very high” when choosing what to buy.

The problem seems to be the price. The survey asks, are fair trade goods worth paying more for? Just one in 13 respondents strongly agrees.

When deciding where to dine out, survey takers listed almost everything above fair trade: menu, price and location come first. Fair trade, organic and sustainable linger at the bottom of the list, attracting fewer than one in 10 respondents.

What should purveyors of fair trade foods take away from all this? Don’t depend on fair trade alone to sell your products. “Combining Fair Trade claims with other ethically oriented benefits will increase the attraction that socially conscious consumers have to products. For more mainstream consumers, attaching Fair Trade with attributes such as nutrition and healthy eating, value, quality, and convenience is vital to sales growth,” the report states.

This story originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of The Observer with the title “Faux trade?” 


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