Seeking Fair Trade
April 2013
Last February, I had the opportunity to accompany a travel delegation from the Just Coffee cooperative, a fair trade enterprise, on its way to visit partners in Nicaragua. Once there, I met with a group of women coffee growers united into cooperatives. They were proud and courageous women who enjoyed peace of mind. They were willing to share their daily lives with us. Fair trade is, in their view, a premium. Among other things, it helps them educate their children. But when the harvest isn't good, it's always a sad situation. You see, there is no harvest insurance over there. And this year, there was coffee rust. Roja. Bad. They will need Just Coffee's support.

According to Wikipedia, although no universally accepted definition of "fair trade" exists, there are a large number of "fair trade" organizations employing different marketing strategies, different standards and different criteria. That's the way it is now. In the past, fair trade appealed only to a handful of people preoccupied with social justice. But today, the wide ranging distribution invested it. According to the Fairtrade International 2013 report, fair trade is growing steadily. Since 2008, negotiated volumes have increased by about 10% annually. Obviously, in terms of world trade, this means very little. But it's a market segment that we can't afford to ignore.

According to Just Coffee, the "fair trade" brand is losing substance. There are so many certifications in existence that it's hard to figure them out. There are some large coffee plantations that are certified but do not respect the basic notion behind the concept. Such as big companies that ask for certification for minimum volume, just enough to be able to display the fair trade banner and clean up their image. It's all about marketing. Does anyone know that most of their volume is being produced through worker or grower exploitation?

Just Coffee is also concerned with the fact that plantations can be certified without even doing business with grower and labour cooperatives. And yet this is the very foundation of the fair trade ideology. Self-help and partners' autonomy should be part of the equation. Democracy and wealth distribution must be encouraged in the small communities partnering in fair trade. Such is the basis on which everyone's wellbeing is built. Right? The same applies here: It is the democratic organizations, unions and cooperatives that helped farmers advance into modern times and, even today, they help channel the strength of their solidarity.

Just Coffee left certification behind and instead joined the Fair Trade Federation. This federation only accepts businesses or organizations that have adopted fair trade as their mission. And this is the case with Just Coffee. The cooperative is dedicated to fair trade. Without certification, it is counting on full and complete transparency. In fact, its website lists all of the cooperatives with which it does business as well as the prices paid for their coffee. Furthermore, the cooperative's travel delegations are open to any curious soul wishing to see firsthand what is going on with their partners.

I've just returned from one such trip and I have more questions than answers, but I was sold on the authentic partnership the Just Coffee cooperative was able to build with the women's cooperatives. I loved the tone of their exchanges. Egalitarian, affable, and extremely respectful. I was touched by the quality of the relationship Julia Baumgartner from Wisconsin, the person in charge of the delegation, maintained with all of these women. This connection gave off a quietly positive energy, laced with tenderness and affection. I watched them closely and I said to Julia: "You're one of them now, we can see it!" The quality of the partnership may be the critical elements. It is a relationship that cannot be reduced to its commercial dimension... unless it can be termed "fair".

I want to take this opportunity to thank the Association des communicateurs et rédacteurs de l'agroalimentaire (ACRA) for the Moïse-Cossette award, without which I could not have had such an incredible experience.

Colette Lebel, agr.
Director Cooperative Affairs
La Coop fédérée
Fax: 514 850-2567


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