Gallagher: The corporate appropriation of fair trade

As you sip your campus coffee, do you ever ponder the life of a coffee farmer? If not, perhaps now is the time to take a few minutes and do just that.

Take for example a farmer in the free trade market that tends a coffee farm 12 hours a day, seven days a week in Central America.  It's a long day and hard work but necessary in order to put food on the table and keep a roof over his family's head. Yet when a pound of his coffee reaches the free market, every penny he receives is a dollar earned for someone else.

Now let's ruminate on how a coffee farmer might benefit from fair trade. Unlike free trade, fair trade works to establish market regulations to ensure the farmer receives a fair price for his product. Currently, the minimum price per pound of fair trade coffee is $1.70 as opposed to around $1.30 in the free market. At both prices, 20 cents will go to management and 10 cents will be fuddled into service expenses but the fair trade farmer ends up with $1.40 per pound as opposed to $1.00 for the free market farmer. This difference amounts to pennies more per cup for consumers yet those few pennies can mean a child receiving an education or a family receiving medical care.

But to truly support fair trade coffee one needs to know exactly which fair trade policies have real impact on farmers and which ones are merely marketing ploys. This can be tricky especially since fair trade has become a new frontier in corporate marketing. This was marked by the emergence of fair trade labeling organizations like Fairtrade International (FLO), the Fair Trade Federation and most importantly FLO-CERT.

The divergence between the fair trade movement and fair trade labeling practices has a lot to do with fair trade becoming a brand controlled by FLO and used as a corporate marketing tool. For their part, companies like Starbucks who sell fair trade coffees have devised their own criteria and began working with organizations like Conservation International to ensure all coffee purchases are meeting a "high standard."

So, Starbucks' Coffee and Farmer Equity practices work to promote sustainable development and fairness to famers. Yet this is not altruistic 1950s fair trade. Conservation International's board of directors is chock full of corporate players. For example, the chair of the Executive Committee is the Chairman of the Board of Wal-Mart.  

Recently Starbucks has been credited as one of the largest buyers of fair trade coffee. Still, asking for a cup of fair trade at Starbucks is like asking for a milkshake at a bar. Starbucks offers only one fair trade coffee on our campus – Café Estima – and it is not promoted; you certainly have to ask for it. Are companies like Starbucks and retailers like Walmart appropriating fair trade to bring customers in? Are they not eager to sell much of it because they'll lose those pennies a pound? Fair trade branding works for Starbucks with its image of a friendly and trustworthy coffee house.

In speaking to CAS, I was informed that our students insisted on getting a Starbucks in the Union because of the atmosphere they provide, the quality of their coffee and their devotion to fair trade policies.

It appears to me that fair trade has become a marketing strategy, not a guiding principle for ensuring fairer prices go to coffee farmers. Do people at Geneseo care about the farmers who produce their coffee? Do we care about the impact of industrial-scale coffee cultivation on the environment? Overall, as more people become aware of the corporate appropriation of fair trade, hopefully more consumers will buy what is right, not just what looks good.