by Nora Burkey
There has been plenty written lately, here and elsewhere, on the positive impact of coffee certifications. Conversely, much has been written about the limitations and perceived failures of certifications. But one point of attack I can personally no longer withstand is the idea that coffee companies, on the whole, should be shamed for marketing their good deeds.
It may be true that some roasters embellish claims about the direct good they contribute through sustainability initiatives and ethical trade practices, but here’s the situation as I see it: Either companies roast coffee and choose to market it in part based on a good cause, or they roast coffee and market it while supporting no cause. Either way, both companies are a part of the same profit-driven system in which “cause coffee” is a marketable commodity.
Companies can inflate or even fabricate claims of good work, and often, the more marketable a good deed, the more other companies will be compelled to “sell” their own causes. The bigger the company, the easier this becomes. But let’s get one point clear: Attacking a coffee company because of the cause is misguided.
For example, take a large coffee corporation that is driven primarily by the bottom line, but which, by public pressure or through its own corporate goals manages to align some of its operations with a certification agency like Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance. While that corporation’s sustainability footprint, so to speak, may still be negative, criticizing the company for marketing its sustainability efforts only serves to diminish the cause. Too often I hear people within the coffee industry criticizing the little good that is being accomplished by a cause-based initiative, larger than criticizing the larger trade systems at play that benefit large corporations and threaten supply sustainability for us all.
So, if cause coffee makes you uneasy because you perceive flaws in the current certification systems, but your alternative is simply not having a cause and not working in any way to transform economic trade policy, I’m not sure this conversation is for you.
‘Cause Coffee’ as Response to the Free Market
Gavin Fridell’s “Alternative Trade: Legacies for the Future,” is an excellent examination of the impact of free trade, as well as several alternative trade models. He spends a lot of time helping us understand the rise and fall of the International Coffee Agreement (ICA), paying special attention to its specific successes and failures. He writes, “In 1962, formal talks were convened by the United Nations under the terms of the Havana Charter involving all the world’s major coffee producing and consuming countries to develop a strictly enforced, multilateral agreement to regulate global coffee supply.”
The ICA regulated prices as well as supply of coffee, imposing quotas on how much coffee a country could export. One problem with commodity agreements is that they have to be renegotiated and resigned, so during periods of economic boom, countries tend to let them lapse, believing they can make more money from the free market. But once a bust hits, as it inevitably will, they scramble to reinstate quota systems. The same thinking can be applied to Fair Trade: Even if market prices rise above Fair Trade minimums, how will farmers be protected when the eventual bust happens?
One of the biggest challenges with Fair trade is that it is a consumer-driven, non-state, opt-in initiative. Fridell writes, “The ICA had a significant impact on millions of farmers and, despite several shortcomings and ‘imperfections,’ generally provided consistently higher and more stable coffee bean prices than was the case either before or after its decades of operation. In particular, laudable non-state initiatives like fair trade coffee certification have not been able to match the ICA’s historical breadth or reach. The ICA system was able to create conventional bean prices that were equal to and in some years twice as high as what is today considered the “fair trade” price, and the ICA reached all of the world’s coffee farmer families, whereas fair trade certification currently reaches only around 3 percent.”
Bruce Wydick, a professor of economics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, recently wrote what is in my opinion a poorly considered critique of Fair trade for the Huffington Post, essentially lambasting the certification for not ending poverty, as if the coffee trade alone were the sole reason billions of people live on less than $1 a day. He claims, “Perhaps a main reason that fair-trade [sic.] coffee continues to have credibility with many in the general population is the immense marketing campaign undertaken by Fair Trade USA, which continues to promote itself despite the self-neutralizing flaws in its poorly designed system.”
Wydick may be confusing the issue. Of course, Fair Trade USA has a marketing budget. Without it, the organization would cease to exist. But that budget pales in comparison to the collective budgets of the thousands of coffee companies marketing Fair Trade coffee as part of their own cause. The Fair Trade system may indeed have its flaws, but most people in coffee would agree that the absence of Fair Trade, along with any number of third-party certification systems, would generally do more harm than good to supply sustainability, environmental sustainability, humanitarian efforts, or whatever the certification’s end goals may be. Again, it is reasonable to criticize the harm being done, but not the relativity of the good.
The Role of Consumers
The economic reality the vast majority of coffee growers live with is dictated by free trade and a global market in which concepts like social and economic equity do not apply. Import controls, tariffs, levies, quotas, and other regulations designed to protect domestic industry and enhance export industry in producing countries are necessary for international trade, but they are not necessarily designed to protect individuals working within the chain. Cause coffee, whatever the cause, responds to this economic reality by calling on consumers to do the “right” thing.
Recently established Toms Roasting Co., for example, relies on consumers in order to supply clean water to coffee-producing countries. Rainforest Alliance asks consumers to help make sure the planet is reasonably taken care of. These are just two large players in the much larger cause game that relies on the active participation of consumers.
Wydick writes that, “If coffee drinkers want to improve the environment, they should pay for it themselves, not impose added costs on impoverished coffee growers.” I don’t necessarily agree with the either/or structure here, but it is true that coffee growers are often not capable of developing their own communities or bettering their farm operations with the money they make from coffee. This is not just true of Fair trade coffee farmers, it is true of a vast majority of farmers.
As Wydick rightly points out, if we want to protect the environment, create more access to safe drinking water, or create any number of positive changes for the people who produce coffee, we need to do that on top of the price of coffee. I say if a company wants to do those good deeds on their own, or partner with a third-party organization working on the ground, even if that organization’s system is flawed, let them market their efforts. If a system that, at its core, attempts to do something good for the world is broken, is the appropriate response just to throw the system away, as Wydick might suggest? Should we not instead attempt to make all of these efforts more transparent, efficient and responsive?
When I lived and worked in Cambodia, I witnessed first-hand Toms distributing shoes, and I can say the giveaway itself was flawed. That said, some simple fixes came to mind — the system warranted a conversation, not a complete termination. It wasn’t Toms’ cause that was the problem, it was merely some flaws in execution. This is why I think we ought to defend cause coffee for the time being: It is what we’ve got under the iron grip of free trade, and it can be made better.
To have an effect on poverty in a widespread and meaningful way, trade policy must change. This is one reason I support a return to some amended form of the commodity agreement, but I won’t sit around in the meantime. The situation is not either/or. For those of us interested in change, we can support the existing organizations doing something, anything, to improve supply sustainability.
Nora Burkey has been working in coffee since 2007, most recently working with producer cooperatives in Nicaragua and Peru. She is currently the executive director of a start-up nonprofit she co-founded called The Chain Collaborative.