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.”
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@example.com.”)
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:
THE TOP FOUR
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.
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.”
Nick Brown is the editor of Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine. Feedback and story ideas are welcome. See the "About Us" page located at the bottom of this site for contact information.