Editorial: Fair Trade: More Than Just a Fair Price..

Written by Cafe Campesino on Nov 1, 2003 in Editorial, NEWSLETTER |

I’ve been told that Café Campesino is far too focused on the ethical and philosophical aspects of our small company. Friends have repeatedly asked – why are you always talking about the farmers and the fair trade model? Why do you often forget to mention how great Café Campesino coffee tastes? This question arose again during a recent marketing planning session (yes, we are actually doing things like this now at CC – right out of MBA101!). Anyway, as each of us eloquently jabbered on and on in answer to the question “What does Café Campesino mean to you?” – the familiar phrases were recorded on the wall: Fair trade. Integrity. Direct Trade Relationship. Organic. Farmers first. We care…So there we were again – focused on mission, neglecting the product.

Then I smiled as I considered what a similar session might sound like at one of many large corporations who are preparing to add fair trade coffee to their extensive offerings: We’ve got to do something! Those $#%& activists. Don’t these students have classes to attend? And why are they so worried about coffee farmers? What exactly is a long term, mutually beneficial trade relationship? How much of this fair trade coffee do we have to buy?

What! Me Worry? (with apologies to Alfred E. Newman…)

Again, sometimes I obviously think waaayyyy too much about these issues. The fair trade movement is at a crossroads. Many companies and organizations who are completely committed to the concept of trading fairly with producers are struggling to find their place in the new “mainstream” fair trade market. What? You didn’t know a mainstream market existed for fair trade? Over 250 coffee companies are now licensed to market fair trade coffee. Indeed, some of the biggest names in specialty coffee – Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, Millstone, Dunkin Donuts are now involved in fair trade at some level through the use of the Transfair label. We should be celebrating this development – farmers are selling far more fair trade coffee – and more consumers are being introduced to the concept of fair trade. Instead, I am quite concerned by the effect that these large corporate players are having on the fair trade movement. More on that in a minute…

Some say the best way to affect change is by working from within, even if you aren’t exactly thrilled by the company that you must then keep. Others say the best way to change the world is to lead by example. Still others say you can’t change the world – all you can do is slow the downward spiral. Well, I’m typically an optimistic guy – I’ve always considered the proverbial glass of water to be half-full. But these days in the world of fair trade coffee I wonder who is holding the water pitcher – and is there a commitment from them to fill more glasses?

Looking Beyond the Label

Since I stumbled across the fascinating world of fair trade in 1997 — including all of it’s promise and all of the challenges, I have admired and drawn inspiration from the core principles of the fair trade movement: transparency, mutually beneficial partnership, long term commitments, care for the environment, respect for the local culture, and ensuring that the producer is earning a living wage.

I fear that the influence of large companies – at least in the world of coffee – is quickly reducing this inspiring model to “Did you pay the fair trade price?” If this trend continues – if “fair trade” is reduced to simply meaning “fair price” – and if success in the fair trade movement is simply measured by how much extra money you send to the producers — Café Campesino will need to find new terminology to describe what we do.

Which brings me to a question for our next marketing planning sessions: Is there a better way to describe “fair trade” than “fair trade”? I sure hope that we don’t have to go there….

In closing, I want to thank all of our customers, readers and fans for helping us achieve another record year. While I do have long-term market concerns as expressed in this column, we are roasting and shipping more fair trade beans than ever! And guess what? We concluded our marketing planning by agreeing that we do need to talk more about the quality of our product. Will we tone down the farmer message? Never. But as large gourmet coffee companies pound the streets and web introducing their new fair trade coffee lines — mission-driven companies like Cafe Campesino will need to combat this loss of business by converting specialty coffee customers over to our 100% fair trade lineup. This is going to be fun!

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