Cooperative Coffees’ Annual Meeting in Peru – Is it Time for a Fair Trade Makeover?
There’s a bunch of news to report from our most recent trek to Peru, where Bill and I met and worked with our trading partners and fellow Coop Coffees members for an action-packed week Jan. 15-22. Meetings, farmer and coop visits, roundtables, and community events kept us fully engaged in what turned out to be (another) remarkable, unforgettable experience. So firstly, I want to thank our gracious hosts at CAC Pangoa and CEPICAFE/CENFROCAFE for taking the entire week to be with us, work with us, and teach us. The same thanks applies to the representatives from 12 of our trading partners’ coops and the seven fellow members of Coop Coffees who made it to this year’s annual meeting… what a wonderful group of talented, committed people!
Before I give a brief trip summary though, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention how glad we are that Bill and our good friends from Bean North finally made it out of Aguas Calientes near Machu Picchu after a week of being trapped there with 4000 other tourists and locals as a result of catastrophic flooding. While we’re thrilled that our friends and the other visitors made it out safely (thanks to the Peruvian government), we acknowledge the pain and suffering experienced by the folks who live in the area (and who have a long road to recovery ahead of them) and those who lost their lives or were injured.
Fortunately though, prior to Bill’s unexpected stay in Aguas Calientes, we wrapped up what indeed was a very intense and productive week of work that brought together the coffee trade’s two primary stakeholders – coffee farmers and roasters – for frank conversations about the work that needs to be done on Fair Trade. We have been visiting and working with our trading partners (mostly the same ones but new partners as well) for the past 10 years or so, but this meeting packed a bit more punch, as we established a joint task force (trading partners, roasters, and Cooperative Coffees as the importer) to go to work on identifying and, ultimately – hopefully, implementing what it’s going to take to really make trade fair.. at least when it comes to coffee.
Café Campesino is very fortunate to be part of Cooperative Coffees, through which we get to work directly with our fellow compadre roasters and coffee farming trading partners. This direct access, year in and year out, provides all of us with a unique opportunity to learn, grow, and develop deep relationships, which in turn breaks down communication barriers and opens the door for open, honest dialogue.. and the opportunity to take action.
We started our week in Peru with a full day of meetings in Lima, where we attended to the business of our Canada office/organization CoopSol, which is responsible for, and highly skilled at, managing our relationships with our trading partners. We received an update about our new cupping lab in Montreal (oh, we’re so excited to have this new in-house resource to which both roaster members and our trading partners will have access). We then reviewed the past year and our work plans for the upcoming year as part of the CRS-funded Café Livelihoods and USAID-funded Farmer to Farmer programs, two initiatives that have asked Cooperative Coffees to work directly with small scale coffee farmers by conducting workshops on understanding the coffee market, managing coffee quality, and related issues. BTW, we, as roaster members of Cooperative Coffees, volunteer our time for these workshops. (On Monday, I travel to our friends at Maya Vinic in Mexico to work with our good friend Chris Treter of Higher Grounds and facilitate a Farmer to Farmer workshop on the coffee market.)
It was after these updates that we dug into an update on Fair Trade, with a particular emphasis on our trading partners’ point of view. Our roundtable discussion elicited a lot of emotion but, more importantly, valuable information about the impact of Fair Trade and “certification” in particular on our trading partners. The bottom line – the mainstream model of Fair Trade needs to be revisited, reworked, and brought into alignment with the reality of the vast majority of the world’s coffee farmers.. who happen to be small-scale producers. From overarching principles to operational mechanisms, Fair Trade needs an overhaul. We feel a responsibility to heed this call, not necessarily to call others out but to focus in on why our model seems to be effective in bringing roasters together with their coffee farming partners in long-term, mutually-beneficial relationships. We need to continue to improve our approach, building on its solid foundation, and work with our trading partners to make it a model that truly satisfies our trading partners and serves as an example to the many roasters and importers who are truly committed to the tenets of Fair Trade, which I think are best expressed by the Fair Trade Federation.
So.. pretty heavy – I know. After getting the ball rolling on this massive “project”, we headed out into the Peruvian field – with about half of the group heading north to spend the week with our friends at CEPICAFE/CENFROCAFE while I headed off with the other half to visit with our friends at CAC Pangoa. On a personal note, I am proud to say that when we reached the 15k foot plus peak at Tiglio during the 16 hour journey to Pangoa, I was able to stand, smile, and enjoy this stop at the site of the world’s highest operating rail system. My first time through, a few years ago, I could barely stand!
The following day, we launched into a week with our friends at Pangoa that was a blur.. non-stop visits, conversations and learning opportunities. Our first day started off with a truly delightful breakfast at the farm of Don Gregorio and his wife, Olinda, and their three lovely children -Louisa, Hido, and Mika – a family that is half indigenous and half Colonas (Peruvians of Spanish descent, some of whom migrated from the Sierra Madre to the Pangoa region). CAC Pangoa has made it a point to facilitate bringing these two groups closer together as both are represented in their coop. Our breakfast was organic eggs, avocado, and fruit from the farm. Delicious.
Immediately after, we drove up to visit with CAC Pangoa member and coffee farmer Don Jesus to learn about his solar drying system and organic practices. His solar drying facility is one of several that are being constructed as part of a CAC Pangoa initiative that is being funded in part with some of the coop’s Fair Trade premium funds.
We then drove to another member of the coop who demonstrated his extremely large solar drying facility, which was in mid-construction. We wound the day up with a most excellent visit to the farm of coop member Norma Valderama, where Senor Guaringa met us to teach us about his bio fertilizer and bokashi (compost) production techniques and the huge impact they’re having on organic coffee yields… actually bringing yields to a financially sustainable level for farmers – about 3000 pounds per hectare – whereas too many organic coffee producers are struggling to reach half that yield. Kudos to Pangoa and their active collaboration with other pioneers in the organic coffee movement from Nicaragua… through shared information and innovation, they are leading the way for small scale farmers. One little sidenote on the trip to the Valderama’s farm.. which is located atop a very steep hill near the top of a mountain. Let me rephrase: it wasn’t just steep, it was vertical… and muddy. Our driver heroically took us up in our 4wheel drive Toyota pickup, delivering us against all odds in fine shape. My good friend, Terry Patano of Doma Coffee, and I celebrated our newfound ability to hold onto things with our bottoms… a skill one can only acquire trying to stay in a truck bed while the earth spins around you!
The following day, we jetted off in pickups to visit and tour farmer Isaac Cotachi’s botanical reserve (eco-tourism site), followed by a community gathering at the indigenous community of Mazaronquiari, where we learned about development proposals for the bringing of tourism to the community. We were honored to be received by the community, hundreds of whom turned out despite the heavy rains. We will soon post videos of the visit. One the way back from the visit to the community, we had lunch at the home of Dona Cilda, where Monika (Cooperative Coffees’ producer relations manager extraordinaire) and I received the unexpected honor of being named the godparents of Dona’s new restaurant which was under construction. With great fanfare we christened the doorway and celebrated Dona’s new venture… which I can’t wait to visit on my next trip down to Pangoa!
The following day, after waking up to the groaning rumble of the nearby male leader of the monkey pack, we traveled back to spend the day with our friends at CAC Pangoa. There, we were brought up to date on their organization and its management, the many projects they have in the works, and how they manage their organic and Fair Trade processes. We then wrapped up the afternoon with a series of dance presentations by members of Pangoa and lots of smiling, laughing, and dancing with each other.
On our last day there, we spent the morning in Pangoa’s spectacular cupping lab. One note – CAC Pangoa deliberately cross-trains its dynamic technical support and management staff (young, full of energy, and supremely competent) so that any one of them can fill in for or support another when the workload peaks… it was impressive to witness such intentional personnel management. Equally impressive is CAC Pangoa’s diligent use of a strategic plan and annual work plan. So inspired was I that I have finally started to discipline myself at Café Campesino to make sure we follow the example set by our friends at CAC Pangoa.
That night, we left to take an overnight bus back to Lima, where we would jump right back in to our last day of meetings with the group that had also just returned from the visit to the north. This last day of meetings provided each group and everyone who wanted with an opportunity to talk about and share their experience during the course of the previous week. After in effect celebrating our visits to what may be two of the best run Fair Trade coffee farmer cooperatives in the world, we shifted over to discussion of the issue we had broached prior to leaving to visit the coops – how we can help to make Fair Trade better. With our task force in place, we now have our work cut out for us. While the challenges are great, I can think of no other group of people I’d rather work with than our trading partner friends and fellow Cooperative Coffees members. Stay tuned for more!
Tags: Aguas Calientes, Bean North, Bill Harris, CAC Pangoa, CENFROCAFE, CEPICAFE, certification challenges, Chris Treter, Cooperative Coffees, CoopSol, crs cafe livelihoods program, Doma Coffee, Don Gregorio, Don Jesus, Dona Cilda, ecotourism, Fair Trade Federation, Fair Trade principles, Farmer to Farmer programs, Higher Grounds, indigenous development, Isaac Cotachi, Lima, local development, Machu Pichu, Maya Vinic, Mexico, Monika Firl, Montreal, Norma Valderama, Olinda, Peru, Senor Guaringa, Terry Patano, transparency, Tripp Pomeroy, USAID
Guatemala Trip Report… Actually, Reflections & Observations.
By Tripp Pomeroy
July 13, 2009
Last month, Bill, Maty, and I traveled down to Guatemala to participate in a CRS CAFÉ Livelihoods workshop and visit/plan with our good friends and trading partners at Santa Anita la Union and La Chajulense. The ten days that we spent traveling around Western Guatemala were unforgettable and, because of our agenda and the people with whom we worked, particularly thought-provoking.
There is something utterly inspiring about Fair Trade when it is used to bring the key stakeholders together for face-to-face encounters, heart-to-heart conversations, and shoulder-to-shoulder collaborations. In fact, open conversations in which questions, doubts, and concerns flow freely are central to making our model of Fair Trade work. When managed with intention, they have the potential to strip away the very anonymity that characterizes the darker side of the commodities markets and in turn build the bridge necessary for consumers and producers to connect and better understand each other. In our opinion, the ability to trace a product back to its human source is the starting point for making trade fair and improving the quality of life for our hard working trading partners. Replace anonymity with identity and good things start to happen – important questions get asked, people begin to hold each other accountable for the way they treat others, and behavior changes. After all, it’s hard to feel an ethical obligation to a spot trade, a forward contract or a future, tools of the trade for commodities.
So, what does all this have to do with our recent experience in Guatemala? Well, the six-day CRS CAFÉ Livelihoods workshop was as true a Fair Trade stakeholder encounter as there is – laden with the very face-to-face, the heart-to-heart, and the shoulder-to-shoulder that makes Fair Trade work. Bill, Maty, and I joined two other members of Cooperative Coffees (Jim Hottenroth of Doma Coffee and Caleb Nichols of Kickapoo Coffee), 30 representatives from five Guatemalan cooperatives (ACODEROL, APECAFORM, ASOCAMPO, Asociacion Sta Anita La Union, and Granja Juan Ana), and the CRS CAFÉ Livelihoods Guatemala program director Luis Rohr to discuss, assess, and document best practices vis-à-vis coffee quality – from crop to cup. A week of workshops and field visits to Granja Juan Ana in the Parroquia San Lucas Toliman and Santa Anita in San Marco followed by cupping training sessions for the entire group at Manos Campesinas’ office and lab in Xela, produced volumesof information and exchangeof ideas, and tangibly improved everyone’s expertise in the area of coffee quality. Together, we fused our trading partners’ knowledge of quality control practices and their innovations at the farming level with what we as roasters know about coffee quality in terms of “the cup” and our customers to produce a shared understanding of what quality means… to all the stakeholders.
This shared understanding in and of itself is hugely valuable, though it is only one of many benefits derived from the experience, some of which included: 1) the five cooperatives represented established contact and formed strategic liaisons with each other for ongoing and future collaboration; 2) we, as buyers, but more importantly, as trading partners, deepened our relationship with each of the coops’ that attended – some of whom we already have relationships with (APECAFORM and Sta Anita) and some of whom were new to us; and 3) the CRS CAFÉ Livelihoods Program demonstrated that NGO’s that are willing and able to collaborate in solidarity with coffee farmers and their trading partners can play a hugely positive role in advancing Fair Trade and effecting change at the grass roots level. Not bad for a six-day deal, eh!
Now I have some final thoughts I’d like to share… about my new take on collaboration, competition, and transparency… and what they mean to me and Café Campesino, especially in terms of Fair Trade coffee.
In coffee producing countries like Guatemala, small farmers collaborate rather than compete with each other in order to beat the “coyote”, who essentially personifies the commodity market for coffee and its approach to buying coffee (buy low, sell high… I win, you lose). We have seen this collaboration throughout the years and, once again, when we were in Guatemala last month.
During a walk in San Toliman near Lake Atitlan, my friend Caleb Nichols of Kickapoo Coffee challenged me on my attitude towards some of the many coffee roasters in the US… an attitude I have since changed (thanks Caleb). When it comes to serving our trading partners, we, as Fair Trade roasters, need to differentiate between organizations that are competition (good) and those which pose a threat (bad). Coffee roasters who honor transparency, acknowledge and share the identities of their coffee farming trading partners, and honestly pursue justice for coffee farmers, are competition… competition we embrace. Coffee roasters who reject transparency, hide the identities of their trading partners, and who choose profit over people… they are a threat… not to Café Campesino but to the prospect of economic justice for the world’s coffee farmers. If we can make the distinction at Café Campesino, certainly U.S. consumers can as well.
Tags: ACODEROL, apecaform, ASOCAMPO, Bill Harris, Caleb Nichols, collaboration, competition, coyote, crs cafe livelihoods program, Doma Coffee, Granja Juan Ana, guatemala, Jim Hottenroth, justice, Kickapoo Coffee, la chajulense, Luis Rohr, Manos Campesinas, Maty de Barrios, San Lucas Toliman, San Marco, Santa Anita, transparency, Tripp Pomeroy, Xela
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:
• 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.
Tags: company mission, Cooperative Coffees, Cooperative Coffees philosophy, democracy, dialogue, direct relationships, Fair Trade, Fair Trade issues, fair wage, FLO, friendships, FTF, FTRN, IFAT, labeling, Latin America, long term commitments, Nicaragua, open price contracts, organic, prefinancing, Producer Voice, Rainforest Alliance, Sam's Club, scaleable approach, Sustainability, TFUSA, the state of Fair Trade, transparency, USFT, Utz Certified, Wal-Mart
“I want everyone in the room to recognize that as this meeting comes to a close, it has just begun to rain very hard here in Nicaragua. In our country, rain is a good sign. It brings growth and opportunity.” Corporino Feliz, FEDECARES, Dominican Republic
I write this as Tripp, Abby and I are flying back from an exhilarating week in Nicaragua. Cooperative Coffees, of which Café Campesino is a founding member, just concluded our 7th Annual Membership Meeting which was hosted by our long-time trading partner CECOCAFEN in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. This year’s assembly brought together 32 farmers and leaders from 18 cooperatives in Latin America, 36 roaster representatives from the US and Canada, along with numerous allies who support our work in the areas of development, finance and certification.
This meeting was a bold step forward for the roasters and coffee producers who collaborate through Cooperative Coffees’ role as the only Fair Trade, organic green coffee bean purchasing cooperative of its kind. Our annual meeting has evolved as our organization has grown. When Café Campesino joined together with six other roasters to start Cooperative Coffees in 1999, we purchased green coffee from 3 farmer cooperatives in Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Our first annual meeting was hosted in 2001 by Peace Coffee in Minneapolis, attended by about 10 people and most of us slept on the floor of Scott’s and TJ’s apartments. As I looked around the meeting room in Matagalpa at the experience and leadership gathered for a week of open, frank discussion about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, I could not help but be hopeful about the future of the Fair Trade movement. This passionate, diverse group of leaders is not waiting on direction from others.
Farmer cooperatives continue to face numerous challenges and need support from their trading partners. More than ever, small-scale farmers urgently need to see more tangible benefits from their commitment to organics and Fair Trade, and the Fair Trade movement as a whole faces increasing challenges and the pressing need to better define and articulate itself. The great news is that the Cooperative Coffees family, roasters and farmers alike, is rising to the challenge!
With this Nicaragua experience providing an appropriate backdrop, let’s dive into “The State of Fair Trade”. In order to keep the length of this article within our self-imposed limit of the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee, I will break the topic down this way: This month we examine our internal system and network; next month we tackle the external trends and influences that keep us on our toes.
At Cafe Campesino, we attempt to incorporate the principles of Fair Trade into every business decision that we make. “Attempt” isn’t a typo – and it hurts a bit to use this word — but we must acknowledge that purity rarely exists and that we are always striving to improve. Our meeting in Nicaragua presented a dilemma of sorts — it simultaneously confirmed how far we have come and how well our system is working — and reminded us of how far we have to go and how much work needs to be done.
A quick description of our Fair Trade model: Cafe Campesino is a roaster/owner of Cooperative Coffees. Cooperative Coffees is a purchasing cooperative modeled after the farmer cooperative structure. Each member has one share and one vote and the cooperative should work on the farmers’ behalf to help the farmer directly access the market. Working collectively with fellow farmers (or roasters), all participants should achieve results and build relationships through their individual cooperatives that would not be possible if they were operating alone. The big question — is it working?
All the standard methods that we use to evaluate commercial enterprises easily illustrate that indeed this system is working – sales of coffee at Cafe Campesino and other roasteries in our coop are growing rapidly. Almost all of the farmer cooperatives that we work with are exporting more Fair Trade coffee each year; some can’t fill all of their orders. Even though there are now over 500 roasters in the US offering Fair Trade coffee, our phone continues to ring off the hook. Cooperative Coffees has 22 members and each week we receive inquiries from roasters who want to know more about our model. Our coop will soon import its 10 millionth pound of Fair Trade, organic coffee and we are forecasting 30% growth for the foreseeable future. So this unique “farmer-to-coop-to-coop-to-roaster” model sure seems to be a hit!
But our meeting in Nicaragua made visible challenges that we must address if we are really dedicated to forming long term, mutually beneficial, Fair Trade partnerships with farmers all over the world. The meeting was designed to encourage attending farmer cooperatives to share “best practices” with one another — and these exercises proved once again that the answers are usually already present at the local level. Some highlights of our internal examination include:
Building a network that helps farmers learn from each other. A cooperative in Peru is working on a plan to provide consulting work and build a farmer exchange program with a cooperative in Guatemala through assistance from a non-profit that attended the meeting. Many of the coop leaders in attendance stated that the annual meeting’s programming was fantastic, but that the most important benefit of the meeting and of the relationship with Cooperative Coffees is the friendship that they have formed with fellow farmer cooperative leaders who share the same challenges on a daily basis.
Helping farmers find a unified voice in a confusing Fair Trade market. All the coffee farmers I know say they need to earn more money for their work. Meanwhile, a futures market in New York continues to dominate the pricing mechanisms that determine the value of a pound of coffee. Through Cooperative Coffees, we fully support the farmers getting higher minimum prices by raising our minimums above the commonly recognized Fair Trade minimum. We also help the farmer cooperative earn a higher price by contracting to pay higher prices before the harvest begins, giving the cooperative a negotiating tool that they can use to get higher prices from other buyers. Farmers are more comfortable than ever before banding together and telling “the market” that good coffee will not exist if prices don’t go up — and the many buyers seem to be listening.
Identifying our problems as problems of success. Many of the organizations in our system are under cash flow pressure — roasters, our coop and the farmer coops. We are all growing quickly and need more capital to support this growth. The good news is that we have identified this and several innovative lending institutions are stepping in to help. We have experienced supply problems during the last year — there are more buyers looking for Fair Trade, organic coffee than ever before and this can occasionally affect our access to supply. Again, there is good news. This situation forces us to examine and deepen the relationship with producer cooperatives, often moves the price to the farmer up, and can result in a renewed and strengthened partnership. Some farmers attending the meeting expressed dissatisfaction with the percentage of the price that we pay to their cooperative that actually makes its way back to the farmer. The Fair Trade movement must wrestle with this issue — our system must provide noticeable impact at the farm level in order to be sustainable. We are investigating this issue with all of the cooperatives in our network and will push the cooperatives to be as efficient as possible, and certainly transparent, concerning the financial and social impact of our purchases.
Launching a number of initiatives during the next year that will strengthen our network and help fortify our Fair Trade model. We will launch a transparency project within the next 90 days that will allow coffee to be traced directly from our roasted coffee bags to the farmer’s cooperative, and ultimately to the farm. We are building several internal communication systems within Cooperative Coffees that will establish advisory and governance roles for producers within our organization. We are partnering with a local university to track the negative effect that a very weak US dollar has had on the net price paid to farmers and attempting to find ways to share the currency risk with the cooperatives.
As we assess the state of Cafe Campesino and Cooperative Coffee’s Fair Trade network and systems, I am reminded of an Ethiopian farmer’s response when asked how Fair Trade has improved his life. He said, “We are thankful that we now have a school in the community as a result of our Fair Trade partnerships, but my children still walk to school without shoes on their feet.”
We left the meeting in Nicaragua with a renewed spirit and enthusiasm for this work we call Fair Trade. Sure, problems were revealed, but these problems were addressed and potential solutions were discussed. Problem solving, after all, lies at the heart of our work as Fair Traders. This year’s meeting revealed a genuine commitment and dedication to making Fair Trade more effective… consensus has it that we all left Nicaragua invigorated more than ever.
Less than 2% of the world’s coffee is sold under Fair Trade terms, so we have a long, long way to go. But Fair Trade is a marathon, not a sprint… and if this year’s meeting showed anything, it is that the members of Cooperative Coffees and our trading partners have the stamina needed to stay in the race.
Tags: Abby Welch, Bill Harris, CECOCAFEN, certification, community development, community-based initiatives, company history, Cooperative Coffees, Cooperative Coffees Annual Meeting, cooperative networking, Corporino Feliz, development, Dominican Republic, education, Ethiopia, Fair Trade, Fair Trade issues, Fair Trade premium, fair wage, farmer cooperative, FEDECARES, finance, friendship, growth, guatemala, Latin America, long term commitment, Matagalpa, Mexico, Minneapolis, mutually beneficial partnership, Nicaragua, organic, Peace Coffee, Peru, Producer Voice, purchasing cooperative, Sustainability, the state of Fair Trade, transparency, Tripp Pomeroy
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.
Tags: Bill Harris, Co-op America, direct market, Fair Trade, Fair Trade issues, fair wage, Global Exchange, guatemala, Lee's Bakery/Deli, mutually beneficial partnership, Oxfam, paradigm shift, Transfair USA, transparency
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!
Tags: Bill Harris, company mission, direct market, Dunkin Donuts, environment, Fair Trade, Fair Trade issues, fair wage, integrity, local development, long term commitments, Millstone, mutually beneficial partnership, organic, Seattle's Best, social activism, Starbucks, Students, Transfair, transparency
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