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A Closer Look At Fair Trade Coffee In Halifax

Fair trade branding used as marketing tool locally

by Patrick Weldon

Bags of coffee. (Photo by Patrick Weldon.)
Bags of coffee. (Photo by Patrick Weldon.)

“Basically, it's people and planet before profit,” Just Us! Café team leader Ali Larsen said when asked to define the café’s idea of fair trade.

The fair trade concept assures a flooring price for coffee, which guarantees better compensation than the international coffee market price would offer. That means smaller coffee farms, usually at the mercy of the market, have a chance to grow.

“They get a better price than they would normally get,” said Jim Dikaios, owner of Java Blend Coffee Roasters.

Among the ranks of positive impacts, Larsen said fair trade gets getting people talking about where their food comes from. “They’re rethinking their backyards even,” says the barista.

As part of the café’s values, members of the Just Us! coffee cooperative have formed relationships with coffee farmers for the past 10 years, and have sustained those to create a healthier coffee trading system.

Although much progress has been made in the world of fair trade coffee over the years, there’s a new movement growing—one that’s adapting to the presence of larger corporate competitors.

According to Larsen, the fair trade-certified logo is becoming a marketing tool. “Big companies are moving in on the certification process and are able to get their way in terms of the wages paid to farmers,” she said.

In an interview last week, Gavin Fridell, associate professor in the Department of International Development Studies at Saint Mary’s University, explained the differences in commitment to fair trade of companies like Starbucks Coffee and coffee cooperatives like Just Us!

“Just Us! is involved in fair world trade, labour rights, farmers' rights and a sustainable and just society,” he said. “Starbucks got involved because of activist pressure that forced them to get on board.”

This difference is echoed in the percentage of Fair Trade coffee purchased by each company: “Eight per cent of Starbucks coffee is Fair Trade while Just Us! is 100 per cent. Right from the get-go, the commitment level is quite different,” he said.

On an international level, Fridell said Starbucks’ support of fair trade takes a tokenized approach.

“They aren't changing their overarching corporate practices,” he said. “Big corporations are not on the side of small coffee farmers.”

Since Starbucks is one of the largest coffee buyers in the world, they are also the number one purchaser of fair trade coffee in the world. This gives the company a huge influence over the fair trade market.

Through negotiations, Starbucks and other coffee giants now have the ability to negotiate fair trade requirements because of the important mass they occupy on the fair trade market.

‘The argument used to be that fair trade was going to change them, but now they have the power to change [fair trade].” Fridell said.

According to Fridell, big companies have found ways around the fair trade certification, while still claiming social justice and environmentally sustainable practices.

Starbuck’s CAFE Project, a “watered down version of fair trade,” represents 84 per cent of the coffee the company calls “fairly traded.”

“Corporations like Starbucks realize they have the ability to game the system and so they draft their own standards and hand-pick NGOs to verify they are following their standards,” Fridell said. “There is no real third-party verification.”

Second Cup and Tim Hortons have similar means of certification.

Tim Hortons has developed a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) chart where they can measure the “impact and success” of their “coffee partnership.”

Second Cup’s Rainforest Alliance Certification is, according to Fridell, “a watered-down version of fair trade with poor definitions of labour prices.”

Diana Morrissey, assistant manager of Starbucks’ Spring Garden Road location, says her company doesn’t carry more than one type of certified fair trade coffee.

“We have the power to buy the coffee we like and pay more for it,” Morrissey said. “It is ethically sourced and we are big enough that we control where we get it from.”

In this regard Morrissey explains that Starbucks meets or exceeds ethical standards.

“Starbucks has the ability to do something bad but they don’t,” she said.

“The problem,” says Fridell, “is that corporations are taking over the fair trade name—all the big boys are in there, and all with token support.”

One of the biggest issues surrounding the fair trade market is the lack of transparency in the public sphere by large companies, he said.

“Starbucks does everything they can to obscure that reality—saying that their coffee is fairly traded [and] marketing themselves in a way that is not entirely clear to the consumer what is fair trade-certified and what isn’t,” Fridell said.

“Starbucks is there to make you feel good about what you buy while coffee shops like Just Us! are there to say, ‘Hey, there are injustices in the world and we need to fight them.’”

To Fridell, this blatant lack of transparency is a way for big companies to commodify social justice.

When asked for an interview at the Barrington Street Starbucks, staff explained they were not allowed to talk about that but that they felt “good about the way Starbucks treated its farmers.”

At the Tim Hortons on Spring Garden Road, one out of five employees had heard of fair trade. However, this employee was unsure what fair trade was, and said she had no clue where Tim Hortons coffee came from.

Many smaller coffee retailers are feeling the pressures of larger companies revamping the fair trade market.

Last year, Java Blend Coffee Roasters, located on North Street, asked for a voluntary de-certification from TransFair Canada, ending a 12-year relationship with the organization that issues certification.

“I didn’t want to pay exorbitant certification fees for a certification whose validity I question when I know the coffee I’m selling is all fairly traded,” café owner Dikaios said. "Our coffee is now 100 per cent relationship-based.”

All the coffee Java Blend purchases and sells comes from importers and cooperatives that the café has close ties to, Dikaios said—and it’s purchased at a fairly-traded price.

‘This works because we are small—but if we were bigger, the fair trade logo might have more weight,” he said.

Rather than being subjected to the world price of coffee and the competitiveness of the international coffee market, “fair trade helps smaller coffee farmers,” he said.

For Fridell, direct trade and relationship trading aims to get around the limitations of fair trade certification.

This is the third in the series of our Just Us! Just Journalism! articles. The Halifax Media Co-op has been fortunate enough to receive year-long funding from Just Us! Coffee to run articles dealing with food security, sustainable farming, co-ops and fair trade as they relate to Nova Scotia and the Maritimes.

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Topics: Food
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