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Is All Really Fair with Fair-Trade Coffee?

When you buy a cup of coffee that has been certified as Fair Trade, Organic or another “socially responsible” label, do you know what you are really getting?

“I think most consumers would be surprised to learn who really benefits from certification,” says Jeremy Weber MA’08, a Ph.D. candidate in agricultural and applied economics.

Weber has spent much of the past five years studying the impact of certification on coffee growers in Peru and Mexico, and he says the small, family-operated farms often portrayed in fair-trade promotions are among the least likely to benefit directly from consumers’ purchases. Often the price premiums growers receive for certified beans are too small to cover the costs of becoming certified. The fees and coordination involved with gaining various certifications favor growers who are organized and aware enough to take advantage, Weber says.

Weber became interested in the coffee trade after spending a year in Peru on a Fulbright fellowship. During that time, he followed a growers’ cooperative as it became certified as Fair Trade, a standard that signifies adherence to sustainable development and fair-labor practices. For his doctoral research, he examined the experience of growers in three such standards—Fair Trade, Organic and Rainforest Alliance. He found that growers do often benefit—but not for the reasons consumers might assume.

“They received more money for their coffee, but the key was increased productivity from their plants,” he explains.

Growers working toward Rainforest Alliance certification, for example, received technical assistance from a nongovernmental organization, something that local governments rarely provide. Weber says farmers who implemented pruning techniques recommended by the NGO doubled yields in four years, although he says sustaining those yields will depend on how well they replenish soils.

Coffee drinkers also might not expect that certification can benefit public-works projects. NGOs working with certification agencies have helped bring running water and latrines into growers’ communities. One Peruvian farmer told Weber proudly: “Our town used to be seen as a backward place, where people were thought of as lazy and incompetent. Now, even though we are just small farmers, we are seen as just as good as other coffee growers from the outside. Farmers from other places are coming to see my crop and how I manage it.”

Still, Weber feels fair-trade and organic certification has a long way to go before it can live up the claims it makes. “Certification too often can become a once-a-year visit to fill out a checklist, not a holistic view focused on outcomes that consumers are expecting,” he says. More evaluations by third-party organizations and academic researchers are needed to fully understand whether certifications are delivering on their lofty promises.

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