Editorial: A Mission… Not a Market

Written by Cafe Campesino on Oct 1, 2004 in Editorial, NEWSLETTER |

I first heard this phrase uttered by a friend and fellow coffee roaster as we passionately discussed why we do what we do. A mission… not a market. The world of Fair Trade is rapidly changing in a variety of ways: labels, campaigns, branding, partnerships, creative marketing, misrepresentations, accusations, opportunities, threats and so on. When Café Campesino sold our first pound of fresh roasted coffee to Lee’s Bakery/Deli over six years ago, we did so as one of only a few coffee companies in the US committed to the concept of Fair Trade. We first learned of Fair Trade from cooperatives in Guatemala which were growing great coffee but desperately needed customers for their product. This experience – walking with farmers through their fields, listening to their concerns and dreams, sensing their determination – is the foundation upon which we have built our company.

Six years later we operate in a very different, exciting and sometime exasperating environment. Over 300 coffee companies now offer Fair Trade coffee as an option for their customers. Campaigns organized by Oxfam America, Global Exchange, TransFair USA, Coop America and many others have helped place the issue of fair international trade front and center in the coffee industry. And – thank goodness – the industry has responded.

Systems are now in place that allow any coffee roaster access to green coffee beans that are certified to be Fair Trade by TransFair USA. We wholeheartedly and sincerely support this system – even though it has created many new competitors for us that aren’t necessarily committed to the principles of Fair Trade. Why do we express support for this system? Because farmers are indeed selling more of their coffee at Fair Trade prices and consumer recognition of the basic concept of Fair Trade has greatly increased as national and regional roasters add some Fair Trade items to their product line. Small companies like ours cannot purchase enough Fair Trade coffee alone to significantly impact the lives of the millions of coffee farming families. If we really believe in our mission, we must welcome others to the Fair Trade movement.

Now, I could end graciously right there. But there is a debate at hand within the Fair Trade movement that delves much deeper and since most of our supporters and customers like to dig beyond the surface, I will share a few more thoughts and even a bit of advice.

Mission-driven companies and organizations are struggling to find our place within this new paradigm of Fair Trade. The struggle isn’t a financial struggle – most of the “Fair Traders” are growing rapidly and are financially solid. Our dilemma is ethical and principled – how do we differentiate ourselves in a crowded marketplace where “Fair Trade products” are offered by companies that are not committed to Fair Trade principles. Most Fair Traders envision a fundamentally different world – a world where trade benefits the disadvantaged producer and the consumer is empowered, informed and able to make conscious choices that reinforce the Fair Trade equation. Corporate players, on the other hand, seem primarily interested in servicing the Fair Trade market rather than helping to create and expand it. Café Campesino wrestled for an entire year with this dilemma and we found our answer in the Fair Trade Federation. For 5 years we have been a member of the federation, but we haven’t to this point promoted the FTF or our involvement in it. We feel the values of our company are best expressed by our membership and involvement in this organization. You will notice over the next few months that we are making a concerted effort to introduce this organization and its eclectic band of over 150 committed Fair Traders to you. Within this network we find our inspiration, our peers, our Fair Trade heroes and our hope for a world where all trade is indeed fair.

Meanwhile, we congratulate our activist friends who continue to convince and coerce large coffee roasters into offering Fair Trade products. Your efforts are vital to this movement. We are at times frustrated, however, by the sophisticated and arguably misleading messages that emerge from the PR machines of these large companies once they introduce a Fair Trade product. If we could just get these large companies to devote as much time and resources to promoting the concept of Fair Trade as they plow into self-promotion of their (often limited) involvement in Fair Trade, the probability of impacting many more lives via Fair Trade would dramatically increase.

We realize, however, that these companies are helping distribute basic Fair Trade information and create the buzz that builds a movement. If someone truly wants to help farmers by purchasing Fair Trade coffee, we believe that they will ultimately look beyond simple advertising slogans and package labels. And we will be patiently waiting for them. In the meantime, we should all pressure these companies to do three things:

  • proactively build markets for their Fair Trade products rather than targeting markets created by Fair Traders,
  • understand that Fair Trade means far more than simply paying a fair price. If we allow the tenets of Fair Trade to be reduced to price only, farmers and Fair Traders will suffer.
  • travel regularly to meet the farmers, their families and their children. This, I am certain, will motivate any company with a conscience to implement a plan to convert entire product lines over to fairly traded products, demonstrating a bona fide commitment to Fair Trade.

The Fair Trade movement assembles a diverse group of organizations, companies, farmers, artisans, non-profits, churches, students and others. We each have an important role to play in this movement and we will all employ a variety of different methods, tactics and tools as we attempt to further the movement. We feel that the goal of the movement should be to change the terms of trade by forming direct, meaningful, long-term partnerships with producers and to empower consumers with the information necessary to make conscious choices. We have always done this and we will continue to do so. Our strategies will differ at times from others that we respect and we will create space within our model of Fair Trade for the views and strategies that others employ. We will not, however, accept the notion that there is only one path to Fair Trade nirvana. We believe that the power of this movement is, in fact, the diversity of its many players and we will encourage all efforts that respect, celebrate and fairly compensate the efforts of disadvantaged producers.

Finally, we believe that most – if not all – coffee drinkers will support the Fair Trade model if they could simply follow a bean from the bush through the hands of the farmer to the roaster and into their cup. So our job at Café Campesino is to articulate this story – to make sure that it permeates every thing that we do. We will also be transparent in our claims and purposely share information with consumers and the industry concerning how and why we do what we do. At a minimum, this transparency will allow folks who want to dig much deeper an efficient way to do so. Hopefully, this information will also provide a path for other coffee roasters who decide to deepen their Fair Trade commitment. Wrestling with industry issues like this, although challenging and time consuming, is necessary. On the other hand, sharing the story of Fair Trade coffee is immensely rewarding and productive. We will chime in as needed on these industry issues, but we will thankfully focus our efforts on the doing the good work of Fair Trade.

Bill Harris is a founder of Café Campesino and often ponders the future course of fair trade while pedaling through the south Georgia countryside.

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