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Consumer Group Fair World Project Rates the Buying Practices of 19 U.S. Roasters

Photo by David Joyce

Photo by David Joyce

The Fair World Project has released an analysis of the trading and transparency practices of some of America’s leading roasters, with some surprising and potentially controversial results.

An independent campaign of the Organic Consumers Association, the Fair World Project was launched in 2010 as a kind of watchdog group to clarify and protect language related to certification claims. The group’s primary goals are to educate consumers, support independent smallholder farmers, and provide working and meaningful definitions for terms like “fair trade” and “direct trade.”

(related: Fairtrade International Introducing Awards Program for Producers and Buyers)

The group just released an analysis of the practices of 19 U.S. roasters creating a 5-star scale meant to “to help consumers start to look beyond just a certification or seal and consider a brand’s overall practices.” Transparency in trading and social and political advocacy heavily influenced each rating, with the group not only analyzing claims made by the roasters about their buying practices and sustainable values, but also determining whether there is any kind of third-party auditing or accountability behind those claims. Roasters with “democratically organized workplaces,” such as cooperatives, also benefitted from the system.

To be clear, this is not an exact science — smiley faces, frowny faces and straight faces next to eight questions asked of each roasting company helped inform the overall rating — and these ratings are likely to upset some people working hard toward sustainability in the coffee field. The list of roasters itself feels somewhat arbitrary, and we know some of the buyers represented on this list to be some of the most forward-thinking and sustainably-minded people in coffee. (The Fair Trade Project says all the analysis is “up to date based on our own research using publicly available information as well as direct correspondence with programs. Any corrections or questions can be directed to [email protected].”)

(related: The Good Food Awards: How it Works, How to Win, and Coffee ‘Elitism’)

Five-star roasters — each commended for consumer-focused transparency, third-party auditing efforts, a commitment to smallholder relationships and engaging in advocacy for policy change — are listed here with a brief excerpt from the Fair World Project:



Equal Exchange (Boston Area, St. Paul, Portland)

Equal Exchange refers to their model of fair trade as authentic to distinguish their commitment to small-scale producer co-ops. They prioritize Small Producer Symbol certified coffee, and for coffees not available from SPP coffees, they are certified by IMO’s Fair for Life.

Just Coffee Cooperative (Madison, Wisc.)

Just Coffee is a member of Co-op Coffees, a cooperative fair trade importer. Just Coffee stemmed from an understanding of how trade policies like NAFTA negatively impacted coffee farmers and they continue to support policies that support people, for example the repeal of the anti-homosexuality act in Uganda.

Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op (Wolfville, Nova Scotia)

Just Us! has created a free fair trade educational museum, a community garden with research and action programs, and post community alerts encouraging community members to take political action on issues key to sustainable farming.

Peace Coffee (Minneapolis)

Peace supports initiatives in coffee growing communities, such as addressing the devastating effect of leaf rust, and supports local causes; Peace delivers coffee locally by bicycle and engages in other initiatives to become environmentally sustainable; Peace also participates in Fair Trade Proof to make coffee transactions publicly available.



At the bottom of the list with 1-star rankings were some of the country’s biggest volume roasters, including Starbucks, Green Mountain and Millstone Coffee Roasters. The group described Millstone as having demonstrated “no real commitment to sustainability or the principles of fair trade.” Starbucks’ low rating was in part due to what the Fair World Project perceived as many claims of fair buying, certification and sustainability efforts that are not actually backed up by the company’s in-house CAFÉ Practices program, which was described as “inadequate.”

Green Mountain, meanwhile, was praised on many fronts, despite the 1-star rank:

Green Mountain was identified as the largest purchaser of fair trade coffee for the three years from 2010-2012 by Fair Trade USA. However, only 31% of their coffee is certified by a combination of Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade USA, and organic. They have, however, committed to not labeling plantation coffee as fair trade. They’ve made a goal of buying only “farmer identified” coffee which they define as knowing who grew their coffee, which they believe leads to the “potential” for developing long-term relationships with growers. There is significant room for improvement, but they are fairly transparent about what they are and are not achieving.



The rest of the list consists of huge-volume buyers like Caribou Coffee and Peet’s, to larger-volume buyers like Intelligentsia, Counter Culture and Stumptown, to smaller-volume buyers like Thanksgiving Coffee Company, Larry’s Beans and Santropol. As with the top and bottom, the 2- to 4-star earners were judged heavily on the backing up and auditing of claims related to socially conscious and sustainable buying and advocacy.

The companies with a 2-star rating — Intelligentsia, Peet’s, Stumptown and Allegro Coffee — were all praised for making commitments to paying higher prices to farmers or environmental sustainability or both, but were generally criticized for a lack of transparency that the Fair World Project says may not reflect a true commitment to small-scale farmers.

(related: Is the Coffee Business Broken? Thoughts from Let’s Talk Coffee)

Most of the roasters on the 4-star tier — including Dean’s Beans, Higher Grounds Trading Company, Larry’s Beans, Thanksgiving Coffee Company, Santropol and Level Ground Trading — were generally praised highly for commitments to fair trading, smallholder investments and social advocacy, but most of them lost points in the “democratically organized workplaces” category.

The 3-star tier is occupied by Caribou Coffee and Counter Culture Coffee, two companies with drastically different reputations regarding buying practices. Caribou is credited as by the Fair World Project as “the only major coffee chain to have a third-party audit for all coffee and offer no conventional coffee,” which along with 100 percent Rainforest Alliance certifications, puts it ahead of the other huge buyers on the list, Fair World Project says.

Counter Culture, meanwhile, is described as having made the “most progress of all Direct Trade roasters to formalizing its definition of direct trade,” and the group praised CCC for developing detailed in-house trading standards and supporting small producers through farm-level infrastructure and management initiatives. It is the company’s independent nature that also seems to have lost it some credit with the Fair World Project, which wrote, “Counter Culture is a private company that has sustainability as part of its mission, though they aren’t tied into a larger multi-stakeholder movement that could help implement this vision or keep them accountable.”



Kevin Knox

This falls under the classic Groucho Marx “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” Fair World Project apparently has its stylus stuck on a bad LP from the 1980’s and thinks that certified fair trade and specialty coffee have something to do with one another, when they don’t – and never have.

During my years as the buyer and roastmaster for Allegro Coffee I had occasion to taste innumerable coffees from the roasters these folks rate highly, and after my nth cup of certified organic, Fair Trade, fermented Peru I coined the phrase “it doesn’t have to taste bad to do good.” You’d never know it from this list, the top of which is made up of roasters whose offerings range from undrinkable to barely survivable – the kind of “penance in a cup” that will get you off coffee and into herbal tea.

Meanwhile the many great roasters mentioned here – from Counterculture to Allegro to Peet’s – have long understood that fair trade is something you do as a sustainable business practice, not something to be certified by outsiders whose love of coffee never gets as far as any knowledge of, or concern for, what’s in the cup.

Robert Hunt

What Kevin said above: If the end product in the cup is sub-par, then sales go down, incentives to jump through the certification hoops go down, income for small farmers goes down, the only beneficiaries are the consciences of a few self-appointed PC police (who live comfortably in the US).

Kevin Knox

And here’s just the “rating” of Fair World Project folks like the Organic Consumer’s Association really ought to pay attention to:

Really, we know what doesn’t work, and that’s imposing a costly, complicated charitable-aid program on poor farmers. Shoudln’t we be celebrating the many innovative attempts to reward farmers for quality regardless of “C” market prices that leading specialty roaster-retailers have pioneeered – while putting the pressure on the Nestlés and Krafts of the world who really are the bad guys here?

Jonathan Rosenthal

Kevin, I respect your many years of experience in the coffee trade. I don’t, though, think the Nestles and Krafts are the bad guys as much as the system is the problem. I believe that fair trade was a fairly blunt and crude intervention into business as usual.

And, it brought the issues of economic and social justice into the heart, soul and body of the specialty industry. This has helped many new initiatives flourish.

And, yes, mainstream fair trade certification has gotten somewhat onerous and is far from perfect. Still, people stubbornly refuse to look at systemic change. Perhaps the best thing fair trade has done is support organizing of secondary level coops, regional and global networks of producers and allies.

This kind of organizing is key to creating systemic change. Without those multiple levels, you can have profound impact but it will tend to be extremely local and often not sustainable over long periods of time.

We are looking for quick fixes in situations of under-investment, oppression, war, slavery and more over hundreds of years. We need some short term solutions and victories but we also need to look at systemic change.

Let’s celebrate that it was only 20-25 years ago that when a few of us talked about living wages, buying from small farmers and the like we were laughed at across the specialty industry. Today, everyone (almost) is talking about these issues and looking for ways to address them in their supply chains. We have taken some powerful steps, made some progress on the ground and have a long way to go.

People have been working on issues of justice and responsibility in trade since humans have gathered in community. Let us re-dedicate our efforts to heal our own wounds, create more aware and just communities where we live and work and support farmers and workers to do the same in their communities. Criticism is important…let us not just tear down but continue to learn to build better trade mechanisms.

We are all connected.

Kevin Knox

I agree with you 100% Jonathan, and I thank you for your many years of hard work in bringing the industry’s attention to these areas.

We are really on the same page, in terms of fundamental values, about what we’d like to see. I used to say – only half-jokingly! – that for real change in this arena to take place we need to work for a world where the imporation of crops from countries that pay their farmworkers less than U.S. minimum wage is forbidden. An outrageous notion to be sure, but not just coffee but our entire food system is built on the backs of the poor. If coffee can be a “canary in the coalmine” for the broader injustice I’m all for it, as long as we use it as a tool to look at the larger issues as well.

Kim Elena Ionescu

Hi Kevin! I’m one of the buyers at Counter Culture and a reader of your blog, and I appreciate your consistent support for the work we do (as well your work at Allegro, a company whose buyers and philosophy I admire and respect enormously). Reading this article last week, I would have expected that Counter Culture’s middle-of-the-road ranking would have disappointed me, but in fact, I think it’s, well… fair. I can’t argue with the fact that all of the companies in the five-star tier are excelling against the standards that the FWP is measuring. I don’t agree with all of their standards, of course, but I respect that the project created them and adheres to them. I am often frustrated by articles and competitions that have no standards save for cup quality (especially when they throw in vague, immeasurable references to relationships and coffee buyers that travel extensively in lip service to social or environmental sustainability), so I find it really interesting that among the FWP standards, there’s no measurement of cup quality. That omission might limit the popularity of this “best of” list when it comes to consumer tastes, but it’s kind of refreshing to me to see roasting companies measured on something other than our ability to cup and buy high-scoring coffees.
As Nick says in the article, smiley faces aren’t an exact science. While I might have liked our company’s direct trade audit to lend us more credibility than it did, when it comes down to it, we’re not a co-op and we don’t really advocate for policy change like the five-star folks do, so it kind makes sense that by this particular standard, we’re not worthy of those additional stars.
Stars and smiles notwithstanding, I feel good about what Counter Culture is doing and I definitely feel good about the quality of our coffee. My pride doesn’t preclude me, however, from applauding companies like Equal Exchange and Peace Coffee for the choices they make and commitments they live out every day. Corny as it sounds, it’s articles like this that make me appreciate the diversity and nuance in our little (growing) industry. Like Jonathan said, we are all connected.

Kevin Knox

Hi Kim! I’ve been fortunate to hear you speak at SCAA and read some of your writing, and I greatly admire and respect the leadership (not to mention transparency, honesty and humility) you and your colleagues at Counter Culture consistently display in discussing these issues.

That said, I think you’re perhaps unduly magnanimous in applauding the work of Equal Exchange and their ilk. Yes they live their values, but the coffee they offer to consumers – in the innumberable natural food stores and retail co-ops in which it is sold – is stale, over-roasted and godawful. It’s the kind of coffee that will make herb tea drinkers out of those unlucky enough to drink it, and it is the exact opposite of the fairly-traded, thrillingly delicious coffee Counter Culture and its peers offer.

We are all connected, but we are not all in the same business. Specialty coffee is about excellence in the cup and the practices that sustain such excellence. Certfied coffees are about setting a floor; specialty is about raising the ceiling.

Kim Elena Ionescu

Hmmmm, I guess we can just agree to disagree, Kevin. I’m glad they’re doing the work they do in the way they do it.
Also, for what it’s worth, I have an indelible memory of a 2010 cupping of coffee from the Quiche region of Guatemala that Peace Coffee was buying against Counter Culture’s coffee from Huehuetenango and of the surprise that I and the whole roasting team felt by the obvious superiority of their coffee. I say this not to demonstrate humility (and hoping that I don’t offend Peace), but because I really don’t think that high-quality coffee is limited to a few roasters all the time. I don’t think it makes our coffees any less good to be able to recognize when someone else’s coffees are good, whether a die-hard fair trader or an upstart, hyper-focused cup-quality fanatic.

Kevin Knox

Hi Kim – I, too, have tasted amazing coffees from individual farms that were part of fair trade co-operatives, but keeping such coffees separate from other lots, finding ways to reward those who grew them without pissing off their neighbors or the co-op management and so on are very difficult precisely because cup quality isn’t part of the system.

I don’t think high-quality coffee is limited to just a few roasters, but I know for sure that it isn’t accidental, and that crafting coffee of exceptional quality year in and year out is what’s required for a farmer to have coffee to sell that earns its premium price in the marketplace.

The numerous new washing stations and technical assistance offered to cooperatives in Ethiopia in recent years, Cota Rica’s Dota Cooperative, the success of El Injerto in Huehuetenango, Price Peterson’s astonishing work in Panama all come to mind as examples of what I would call sustainable, market-driven excellence, and obviously there are many others. I look at those models and then I think of the amount of time I and many other buyrs have squandered trying to create incentives for quality with, for example, Prodocoop in Nicaragua and other FT co-ops in Oaxaca and Chiapas and I find myself in complete agreement with the Bruce Wydick article I provided the link to earlier on: FT is a system that doesn’t work even for its stated goals, and miraculous (or at least serendipitious) small parcels of good-to-great coffee that emerge from time to time don’t constitute an exception to that rule.

Coffee speed

On a lighter note who would you suggest I contact to roast and package coffee and tea for a distribution company.

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