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Fair Trade Coffee: Coming to a Cafe Near You

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  • Clore Daniel C
    News for Anarchists & Activists: http://www.egroups.com/group/smygo Fair Trade Coffee: Coming to a Cafe Near You Tamara Straus, AlterNet November 30, 2000
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 5, 2000
      News for Anarchists & Activists:
      http://www.egroups.com/group/smygo

      Fair Trade Coffee: Coming to a Cafe Near You

      Tamara Straus, AlterNet
      November 30, 2000

      Here's a breathtaking statistic: The $3 many Americans shell
      out every day for a latte at Starbucks is equivalent to the
      daily wage of a Central American coffee picker. Nonplussed?
      Here's another heart-stopper, specially designed for the
      non-gourmet coffee drinker: Those $3.95 cans of Maxwell
      House and Folgers you pick up at your local supermarket,
      well, the beans that fill them are bought for around a
      quarter and come from corporate farms that use
      environmentally poisonous pesticides and clear-cut forests
      to produce the highest possible yields.

      This may just serve as more fodder for those already
      sufficiently demoralized by the practices of big business.
      But what is interesting about such stats is they are being
      used to create a new American political animal: the ethical
      consumer.

      True, the ethical consumer may pale in comparison to the
      do-gooders of old -- the abolitionist, the suffragist, the
      fighter for civil rights or no nukes -- since his primary
      act is figuring out how to ethically empty his wallet. Yet
      considering multinational corporations like Microsoft have
      annual revenues higher than the GNP of most countries -- and
      deregulation in the U.S. is on the rise -- ethical
      consumerism may be the best political weapon Americans have
      got.

      Enter Fair Trade Coffee

      Consider the example of fair trade coffee or "politically
      correct coffee," as Time magazine has dubbed it. Fair trade
      coffee sells for a minimum of $1.29 per pound -- which goes
      directly to coffee farmers, not to "coyotes," the middlemen
      who pay farmers usually no more than 35 cents a pound. It is
      grown on small farms, which tend to cultivate in the
      traditional way: under the rainforest canopy and without
      pesticides. And because fair trade coffee has doubled
      farmers' annual incomes, more than 500,000 people in 20
      developing nations are now living above the poverty line.

      Nothing wrong with that. Indeed, those who hear about the
      benefits of fair trade coffee tend to support it. The only
      problem is that a nationwide advertising campaign is needed
      to get the word out, and large coffee retailers -- the ideal
      candidates for such an effort -- will not do it, since
      buying coffee at fair trade prices would cut into their
      profits.

      "Oh, it's the same old story again," you might say. "Good
      ideas, impossible to implement." But what is different about
      the fair trade coffee campaign is that, thanks to a
      coalition of nonprofits, good ideas are being implemented
      using ethical consumerism as a bargaining chip.

      Dutch Innovation

      The story of fair trade coffee begins in 1988, in Holland,
      motherland of the international human rights movement. A
      group of fair traders selling coffee and other products at a
      crafts market decide to create a fair trade seal -- a label
      that will let customers know the product was bought at a
      decent price. They call the seal Max Havelaar after a
      best-selling 1860 book about the exploitation of Javanese
      coffee workers by Dutch merchants. In doing so, the traders
      remind their countrymen that coffee is a commodity tied to
      the history of colonialism.

      In the same year, the Fairtrade Labeling Organization (FLO)
      is founded, an umbrella institution for European
      certification organizations like Max Havelaar, which have
      begun to help coffee farmers create fair trade cooperatives
      and connect them to retailers in the North. During the next
      decade, FLO's members draw a whopping half million farmers.
      The reason? Coffee farmers receive a tripled per pound price
      and FLO's arrangement eliminates their dependence on
      middlemen.

      The farmers' end of the bargain is also relatively simple.
      In exchange for letting TransFair England, for example,
      inspect their farms and collect 10 cents per pound on coffee
      sold, coffee farmers get the right to use the fair trade
      logo.

      By 2000, FLO's efforts are a success. Fair trade coffee
      cooperatives have spread from Guatemala to Indonesia, and
      the TransFair certification seal is found in 16 European
      countries as well as Japan and Canada. Worldwide, over 100
      fair trade coffee brands are sold in approximately 35,000
      markets. Organic fair trade coffee is also on the rise, as
      farmers are using their increased incomes to cultivate
      coffee without chemicals.

      America the Late

      Where were Americans during all this time? you might ask.
      Well, for one, wasting time over cups of joe. Americans
      consume an estimated one-fifth of all the coffee trade,
      making it the largest consumer in the world. Moreover, as
      anyone who lives near a Starbucks outlet knows, Americans
      have developed a yen for gourmet coffee, for cappuccinos and
      lattes and decaf mocha frappes.

      This is the main reason Paul Rice, who worked with coffee
      farmers in Nicaragua for 11 years, founded a U.S wing of
      TransFair in the summer of 1999. "I just took the next
      logical step," says Rice. "In Nicaragua I saw fair trade
      coffee cooperatives find markets in Europe, and I assumed
      the same could be true for the U.S."

      Rice started local. FairTrade USA's headquarters in Oakland,
      Calif. meant it could take advantage of the San Francisco
      Bay Area's historic gourmet coffee tradition and liberal
      politics. Within four months the Bay Area's reputation
      proved true: 12 local roasters signed up to sell fair trade
      coffee. Today 35 fair trade brands are available in 122 Bay
      Area supermarkets and cafes. The City Councils of San
      Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley also have passed resolutions
      to support the sale of fair trade coffee.

      Fair Trade Frappaccinos?

      But fair trade coffee advocates' real coup did not come
      until April 2000, when Starbucks, which controls 20 percent
      of the U.S. specialty coffee industry, agreed to carry fair
      trade.

      Of course, the agreement did not come without a fight. At
      first Starbucks refused to carry fair trade, explaining that
      until there was consumer demand it could not sell the
      politically correct bean in its 2,300 stores. But after
      being subject to a year-long campaign organized by Global
      Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights organization --
      a campaign that eventually culminated in plans to stage
      protests at Starbucks in 29 cities -- the retailer decided
      to avoid a public relations nightmare and sell the beans.

      "Fair trade gets the benefit back to the family farmer,"
      said Starbucks vice president David Olsen shortly after the
      decision was made. "It is consistent with our values."

      Starbucks' decision to sell fair trade coffee, however, does
      not mean the company will brew it in their stores. This will
      depend on "consumer demand," say Starbucks corporate heads.
      So, once again, this will mean that Global Exchange and
      other fair trade coffee advocates will have to prove --
      through a combination of grassroots organizing, educational
      outreach and threat of protest -- that a demand exists.

      Deborah James, fair trade director of Global Exchange, says
      that consumer demand is not the chief problem. "Since fair
      trade became available at Starbucks in October," she says,
      "consumers have told us that they are buying it by the pound
      and that they want to see it as a 'coffee of the day,'
      something that Starbucks, it seems, will not do."

      Alan Gulick, Starbucks' public affairs director, says the
      reason Starbucks does not serve fair trade as a daily brew
      is because "the volume of fair trade coffee needed in not
      available." Yet, according to Nina Luttinger, communications
      manager of TransFair USA, there is evidence to the contrary.
      She reports that in 1999 of the 60 million pounds of fair
      trade coffee produced globally only half sold on the fair
      trade market.

      "This meant that farmers had to sell their product through
      the usual channels and got paid much less," says Luttinger,
      who doubts that the fair trade coffee sale figures will be
      drastically different in 2000.

      Is Fair Trade Just for Gourmands?

      Still, Starbucks introduction of fair trade coffee is a
      victory for the movement. And the victory extends beyond the
      creator of the Frappaccino. During the 18 months fair trade
      coffee has been available on the U.S. market, the number of
      retailers has grown from 400 to 7,000, according to Paul
      Rice. In November Safeway, the supermarket king, launched
      fair trade coffee in 1,500 of its stores nationwide -- a
      decision Rice says came about not through threats of protest
      but through the supermarket's "enlightened self-interest."

      "Companies are coming to me now," says Rice. "And some, such
      as Choice Organic Teas, have decided to eat the cost of
      buying fair trade rather than raise prices. They want to
      support fair trade, introduce it to their customers and
      figure losing a few cents now is worth it."

      But what about the big guns of the coffee industry:
      Nestle's, Folgers, Maxwell House? "I think it's going to be
      a challenge to convince companies who are paying less than
      50 cents and selling it for around $4 that they s hould pay
      $1.29," says James. "Fair trade coffee successes so far have
      all been in the gourmet coffee industry."

      This fact makes activists in the ethical consumer movement
      cringe. For it raises the question of how wide the movement
      can be. Will enough Americans care about labor conditions in
      the Third World and the environmental problems created there
      by American coffee corporations to force real change in the
      industry? Will they, as James has decided, "never
      voluntarily put someone in a situation of poverty,
      exploitation and debt just to enjoy a cup of joe."

      You may say no, but activists like Ronnie Cummins, national
      director of the Organic Consumers Association, argues
      Americans have little choice: "We have an obligation to the
      environment, we have an obligation to human rights, to drive
      unsustainable coffee off the market. We need to reach that
      point, like when it became socially unacceptable to buy
      products from South Africa because of Apartheid."

      The Fair Trade Pitch

      How fair trade advocates will accomplish this sort of mass
      educational outreach depends on their mission and point of
      view. Rice, who works directly with coffee retailers, argues
      that the introduction of fair trade in the American gourmet
      coffee industry is having a domino affect. "Corporations
      realize they must meet the demands of their customers," says
      Rice. "And if their customers want fair trade, they provide
      it."

      James, whose organization Global Exchange is focused on
      international social justice issues, believes consumer
      knowledge about globalization is the key. She and her
      colleagues have tied coffee farmers' work conditions to the
      more familiar issue of sweatshop labor.

      "We call non-fair trade coffee 'sweatshop coffee' because
      many Americans know about sweatshop conditions in Asia and
      Mexico," she says. "They know the people who make Nike
      sneakers and Gap t-shirts are paid inadequate wages and work
      in unhealthy conditions."

      Cummins, whose Organic Consumers Association is devoted
      largely to environ mental issues, also uses the term
      sweatshop coffee in its activist literature. But he also
      tries to get consumers to think about agricultural and
      environmental sustainability.

      "I tell people that the way coffee was grown for hundreds of
      years had a low impact on the environment," says Cummins.
      "And that with sun-grown coffee -- the 'innovation' of the
      international coffee cartel -- what you do is chop down
      everything and use a lot of chemical fertilizer, pesticides
      and so on. In essence, you destroy the environment."

      European Sophistication

      Activists like James and Cummins have wondered why Europeans
      are ahead of Americans in bringing fair trade to market.
      Since 1998, seven different products -- coffee, tea,
      chocolate, bananas, honey, sugar and orange juice -- have
      been available with the fair trade label in Europe. Fair
      trade products were also available in Japan and Canada
      before the U.S. Why are we were behind?

      "In Europe the media's better," says Cummins. "The political
      system is based on proportional representation. There are
      the same number of people here as in Europe who support
      Green Party ideas; the difference is they have 10 percent of
      the seats in the European parliament and we have no seats in
      Congress."

      Cummins adds there is mass support for organic food -- and
      mass antipathy toward chemically altered or genetically
      engineered food -- because of Europe's Nazi past, which
      makes people extremely wary about a super race of anything
      or genetic enhancement. The recent outbreak of Mad Cow
      disease is also an undeniable factor.

      "We just can't comprehend what it feels like to know that
      you might die because the government lied to you about
      industrial agriculture practices," says Cummins. "Europeans
      now say: 'Never am I going to just accept something because
      establishment science and the government tell me it's
      safe.'"

      As for a more sophisticated understanding of globalization,
      James says Europeans are ahead because they are able to tie
      the lessons of their colonial past to today's global future.

      "Europeans have a direct understanding that the system of
      agriculture we have now -- where farmers are exploited and
      their products are unfairly sold -- is based on a colonial
      system," she says. "Whereas in the United States we do not
      feel responsible for the fact that in the Winward Islands of
      the Caribbean people there are entirely dependent on banana
      plantations because we put them there."

      James would like to link non-fair trade coffee to the
      history of colonialism or the concept of "neo-colonialism,"
      but she says, "If you bring up the word colonialism or
      imperialism here, people have no idea what you're talking
      about."

      The Future of Ethical Consumerism

      Although Americans may be somewhat blind to history, polls
      show they are awake to the present. According to a December
      1999 US News & World Report poll, 6 in 10 Americans are
      concerned about the working conditions under which products
      are made in the United States and more than 9 in 10 are
      concerned about working conditions under which products are
      made in Asia and Latin America.

      This is good news for ethical consumerism. It shows that
      consumer choice based on criteria of economic justice and
      environmental sustainability has a future. But does it mean
      that ethical consumerism can grow beyond the 50 million
      Americans who supposedly practice it? Can ethical
      consumerism -- without government support and positive
      mainstream media attention -- be viewed as something other
      than the ultimate knee-jerk liberal issue?

      Argues Ronnie Cummins: "It's a very good historical trend
      that consumers are becoming more aware, but unless trade
      unions and churches, consumer groups and environmental
      groups work together -- North and South -- we're not going
      to solve this problem. Sure, we can alleviate some of our
      bad conscience on a day-to-day basis, but that's not getting
      to the root of the problem, which is unchecked
      globalization. Even if you can produce cheaper in China the
      hidden costs of doing something like that are pretty darn
      convincing."

      News for Anarchists & Activists:
      http://www.egroups.com/group/smygo

      --
      ---------------------------------------------------
      Dan Clore

      The Website of Lord We├┐rdgliffe:
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      &c., &c.,"
      -- The Book of Dzyan.
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