Editorial: Digging Deeper with Bill Harris

Written by Cafe Campesino on Nov 1, 2007 in Editorial, NEWSLETTER |
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In last month’s newsletter, I promised to write a “State of Fair Trade” piece for this month’s edition. I made this promise as we were returning from a week of hard work and plenty of laughs in Nicaragua with representatives from most of our Latin American trading partners and fellow members of Cooperative Coffees. On several occasions during this past week I turned on the laptop, sat down in the “writing chair,” and attempted to bang out this promised treatise. I began as I usually do, creating a brief mind-map of ideas and angles, starting with a plea against being “labeled.” I followed with the common coffee labels – organic, Fair Trade Certified, Utz Certified, Rainforest Alliance, and such. Then came the snappy, “You can certify a product, but you can’t certify a relationship.” Then letters – TFUSA (TransfairUSA), FLO (Fair Trade Labeling Organization), IFAT (International Fair Trade Association), FTF (Fair Trade Federation), USFT (United Students for Fair Trade), FTRN (Fair Trade Resource Network) — some were circled, others scratched through, each representing a significant piece of the way we do business. But running this business demands so much more than an impressive collection of acronyms. Finally, the brain purge produced questions about the way our economy works and where Fair Trade fits in to that economy with companies like Sam’s Club jumping into the Fair Trade movement.

So where is this article headed? Here’s where it almost headed: to a place that would allow me to air more complaints about the State of Fair Trade, that would attempt to articulate our frustration with the low-bar approach to Fair Trade that now dominates the US coffee scene, that questions the reality and benefits of a system that celebrates token involvement from companies like Sam’s and Wal-Mart. But an article like that will probably be read by only a few people, enjoyed by fewer, and only really understood by fellow frustrated Fair Traders.

I was rescued from this Fair Trade writing abyss by a late afternoon phone call with another Fair Trade importer who, after hearing of challenges that we are having with one of our long-time trading partners, stated, “Stay positive. I think you can work this out. You gotta keep the faith…”

We started Cafe Campesino almost 10 years ago with a heavy dose of this kind of trusting optimism and knowledge that good things do happen when you work hard, stay true to your principles, and “keep the faith”. We find the Fair Trade environment to be quite challenging these days. Sometimes I find myself searching for terminology that better describes what we really do, like “friend trade” rather than “Fair Trade”. But buzz words are just buzz words, and labels are just labels – what really matters is the meaning behind them. So rather than harp on what is wrong with this perplexing movement as Fair Trade principled organizations are challenged by the proliferation of Fair Trade certified products, I will focus on what we at Cooperative Coffees are calling our “Fair Trade checklist”. This list highlights what, in our opinion, real Fair Trade looks like and why, in a crowded Fair Trade marketplace, we are different. So if you want to find glowing reports on the movement or dire predictions for the demise of Fair Trade, look for a different article. Both types are easy to find. Your search is over if you like to sip coffee that has these principles behind it:

Our Philosophy…
• Commitment to place the trading partners, their identity, and their product front and center. We do not hide behind anecdotes of sourcing from secret, mystical mountains – we want our customers to know the people who grow our coffee.

• Commitment to proactively connect through business on a personal level. We want relationships to become friendships. We encourage visits/exchange that cultivate a transparent, personal relationship with ongoing contact and dialogue.

• We are willing to introduce trading partners to other potential Fair Trade partners in the US and facilitate new opportunities for the trading partner. We unselfishly share information and actively introduce trading partners to more market opportunities, even if this doesn’t serve our best business interests.

• We understand the consequences of entering into a long-term contract and relationship with marginalized producers — a relationship that promises hope for the future but is risky. We prioritize fulfilling our commitment, regardless of the circumstances.

• We are putting in place an industry-leading transparent document trail that will allow our customers to trace any cup of coffee back to the cooperative that exported it, and ultimately to the farmer who grew it.

• We are willing to walk away from a potential business opportunity when other Fair Traders are already in place.

• We accept and respect the unique organizational structure and culture of the trading partner. We do not impose democracy – but we do encourage it.

• Our contracts exceed Fair Trade standard pricing formulas and should be acceptable to trading partners based on their actual costs of doing business, their cost of living, and more subjective financial needs. We ask them how much they need us to pay, per pound, so that the system works for them. We cannot always meet the price – but usually we can and, most importantly, this is a two-way conversation. We are committed to building alternative pricing models that replace the current NY ‘C’ pricing scheme which mainly serves Wall Street.

• We don’t want to be the only buyers of our trading partners’ coffee! This is illogical in today’s market of limited editions and exclusive contracts…but this position is certainly in the best interest of the producers.

• We believe all trade should be fair and are developing a scaleable approach to trading fairly that other folks can copy, not a self-serving model that is admirable but not applicable to the industry as a whole.

Our Business Practices…
• We address prefinancing proactively, openly, and up front. We do NOT believe in a “don’t ask-don’t tell” prefinance policy that seems to have become the industry norm.

• We recognize that the established Fair Trade coffee standards, including minimum pricing, are not adequate and should not define our relationships with our producers. Those standards simply play the role of insurance. We get excited by the depth, breadth and scope of the relationship. Insurance is something to fall back on, not a measure of success.

• We consider open price contracts that adjust based on market conditions to be the standard. Fixed price contracts are dangerous for the coop in a rising market, so we opt not to use them.

• We do not have other products subsidizing our overhead. If we do it, it is Fair Trade.

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