Trading blows – how Fairtrade responded to critics

IMG_8768WA lot happens between coffee beans being picked and your cup of espresso landing on a coffee table; a lot that can easily be ignored, forgotten, barely even considered.

In recent weeks the Fairtrade model of sourcing and selling coffee beans has come under fire.  Accreditations our products hold and methods used to source coffee beans are critical components of Jackson Green Coffee, which we take extremely seriously. So we had to keep track of the story.

An apparently well-researched item from Huffington Post, dated July 7th and entitled “10 reasons fair trade coffee doesn’t work” levelled a degree of criticism. It raised profound questions about the Fairtrade model and argued that “evidence for any positive effect of fair-trade coffee on coffee growers is mixed at best.”

The article went on to state…

“Several recent studies by researchers at Harvard, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of California indicate that fair-trade coffee has small to negligible effects on coffee growers, especially the poorest ones. The University of California researchers find that the lack of impact stems from the ill-conceived design of the fair-trade system. Indeed, a consensus among development economists indicates fair-trade coffee to be one of the least effective means for reducing poverty in developing countries.”

Read the whole Huffington Post Business article here.

Jackson Green Coffee were alerted to the formal response issued by Fairtrade International on August 13th.

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It’s to the credit of Fairtrade International that the Huffington Post article was directly addressed in this way. The response acknowledges the complexity of global trade and the resulting poverty, and says that Fairtrade’s development approach has been misunderstood.

Read the response in full here.

Both sides traded blows in the form of academic research. Both had seemingly well-reasoned and well-articulated points and counterpoints.  These issues are deeply complicated, laced with ambiguity and contain ample room for multiple opposed interpretations. The issues are also deeply emotive because these things directly impact the lives and livelihoods of already underprivileged people in underdeveloped countries.

But it’s difficult to both make and blindly accept assertions across the board, such are the number of different variables and the vast differences of the geographies and cultures in question.  You need to read more than a couple of articles on the web.

While the alternative model of Direct Trade has won some support as a result, we at Jackson Green believe that Fairtrade does, as it says, continue to play an important part in improving the lives of farmers and workers in underdeveloped countries.  Long may that continue, and also long may well informed discussion continue.

If research can result in openness of discussion, if the views of opposing factions can be constructively brought together for the good of farmers, families and communities, that will hopefully make for healthier future models of coffee trading.