A Bridgehead barista brews a cup of coffee. Courtesy of Joelle Guedon
Buying fair trade coffee doesn’t hurt. But it doesn’t help as much as we might imagine.
By Pieta Woolley
Up until this June, I was a fair trade-coffee-buying machine — or zombie, as the case may be. Standing in the aisle at the Real Canadian Superstore with a preschooler in the cart and a seven-year-old whipping down the aisle, I’d happily shell out for whatever bag featured the swirly Fairtrade logo. It was a bonus if it was on sale.
This was a source of conflict in my marriage. My husband, who is both smart and cheap, doesn’t buy in to consumerist activism. The world’s problems, he argues, can’t be solved by shopping. I can reason both ways, but my “gut” felt better about drinking certified coffee. Until I read a review of a new book criticizing the entire certification framework: The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich, by the Senegalese economist and former Fairtrade International staffer Ndongo Sylla.
The review appeared in a dog-eared copy of the Economist, passed on to me by a relative. Fairtrade certification, Sylla’s reviewer summarized, doesn’t deliver what it claims it does. The effects on poverty are minuscule, according to Sylla, while allowing northern consumers and businesses to glow with self-congratulatory goodwill. I have since read the book — a dense, academic tome — but it was the original review that shook me.
I stopped buying fair trade. Not for a particularly well-researched reason. The article just sucked the happy feeling away, and I was left feeling like the North American fair-weather do-gooder I secretly know I am.
Fairtrade International responded to Sylla last July with a press release. “We believe the core of Mr. Sylla’s critique is based on unrealistic expectations about what Fairtrade can and should aim to accomplish. . . . We do not claim to be a perfect solution to the many issues in international trade — but we are a part of the solution.”
In the pantry, I had a near-empty bag of 32 Lakes coffee — a local brand that is not certified Fairtrade but claims to be ethical and organic. So when I bought the big, cheap bag of Safeway espresso to replace it, I simply refilled 32 Lakes’ rustic-looking brown sack. In case anyone came over, I could keep my ethical “cred.” We saved about $7 a week.
I wanted to know: am I the only lefty in Canada secretly not buying fair trade? Far from it, evidently.
At best, the fair trade movement, embraced by church justice and outreach committees for more than 30 years, seems to be losing momentum. At worst, it’s coming under direct attack by a chorus of critics who share Sylla’s view of fair trade as a watered-down imitation of meaningful change.
Just two percent of coffee sold in Canada is Fairtrade certified. That’s after more than three decades of promoting fair trade by faith organizations, Ten Thousand Villages, Bridgehead Coffee, 10 Days for Global Justice and many others. The groups involved represent nearly 19 million Canadians.
Not long ago, the movement was unreservedly hopeful. Back in the late
1970s, Peter Davies, Rev. Stuart Coles, Angie Pritchard and Rev. Frances
Combs formed the first fair trade coffee company in North America out
of Toronto’s Bathurst United Church: Bridgehead.
Combs, the only
living member of the group, is retired but still attached to Bathurst
United as a volunteer pastoral associate. Fairly traded coffee,
chocolate, tea, olive oil and bananas fill her pantry. In her bathroom,
she uses olive oil soap from Zatoun, a company based in Richmond Hill,
Ont., that trades fairly with Palestinians. She’s a regular shopper at
the Ten Thousand Villages store. Her support, in other words, hasn’t
wavered. But the intention, she notes, was never to take over the
“Our goal was to trade fairly, to give people a fair
price for their labour — which was not the aim of capitalism,” she tells
me in an interview from her home. “I grew up in Texas believing that
racism is the greatest cause of unfairness. Later on, I realized it is
poverty — poverty as related to racism and classism.”
the others approached 10 Days for Global Justice (a precursor of the
KAIROS coalition), Oxfam Canada and the United Church General Council
directly, but no one wanted to invest. By 1981, Combs and her team had
scraped together enough money to import their first shipments, and Bridgehead was born.
foursome visited Tanzania and Sri Lanka to solidify ties to tea and
coffee suppliers. With a volunteer base in Canada, they began a
mail-order business. Four years later, it was profitable, employing
Canadians and paving the way for other fair trade companies. In 1984,
the original four sold Bridgehead to Oxfam.
The independent certifier, Fairtrade Canada, began offering the logo program in 1997.
a time, fairly traded coffee in Canada took off, but over the last
handful of years it has plateaued, selling just under six million
kilograms annually, in a country that consumes about 243 million
kilograms per year. “I still buy fair trade,” says Combs. “I am totally
convinced that’s how we ought to shop, as well as support organic
Perhaps no one in Canada talks as much to shoppers
about fair trade coffee as Gwen Lavoie-Repeta, the boisterous manager
of Ten Thousand Villages’ most successful Canadian store, in Winnipeg.
Her team sells over $1 million a year of fairly traded products. I
sought out Lavoie-Repeta to help interpret why Canadians buy so little
Fairtrade-certified coffee. What’s going through our collective minds?
Two things, she says.
First, many people who visit her store —
shoppers who are actively seeking out ethical alternatives — don’t
understand the fundamentals of what fair trade is. “When people come in,
they’ll sometimes say, ‘This is a really cool place to shop! They send
money to poor people,’ and I have to correct them. This is not charity. .
. . This is about fairness, about farmers who want to be paid fairly
for what they produce.”
Second, she says, for the vast majority
of consumers, shopping with a conscience is the exception, not the rule.
During the Christmas rush, Lavoie-Repeta says the volunteers at her
store often complete $30,000 in sales in a single shift. And coffee is a
hot seller. “That’s your feel-good coffee, a feel-good gift,” she says.
“It’s not part of every day [for many of our shoppers]. . . . At
Christmas, they want to make sure we insert the card about fair trade,
so the gift is extra meaningful. It makes them look good, too.”
In other words, people don’t always connect their ideological support of fair trade with their actual shopping habits.
completely different explanation for why Canadians aren’t buying fair
trade coffee comes from Ian Clark, the director of coffee for
Bridgehead. The company dissolved under Oxfam in the late 1990s but was
revived as an independent chain of coffee shops with an online store in
2000. In its current incarnation, Bridgehead is bucking the trend — its
15 shops in Ottawa are thriving, and it plans to expand elsewhere in
Clark believes Canadians generally have stalled on fair
trade because quality isn’t top of mind for either consumers or
producers. If you want consumers to pay more, he says, they have to want
better-quality coffee. So does the farmer.
“Ninety percent of
North Americans don’t drink their coffee as coffee,” says Clark, a
longtime barista. “We do that because most coffee was and is really bad.
It’s not something you’d want to drink without cream and sugar.”
brewing thousands of Americanos and mochas over the years, Clark says
meeting farmers in Central America was an eye-opener. “Suddenly I was in
the highlands of Nicaragua shaking hands with producers. It was my
first trip anywhere where incomes are low and there’s real poverty. I
was just stunned into silence.”
The coffee farmers he met,
producing some of the best beans in the world, don’t drink their own
coffee, he discovered. They buy instant at the market because they don’t
have the tools to roast or brew their own. While they follow the advice
of agronomists for better quality and yields, the farmers are often as
cut off from their own final product as northern consumers are from the
producers in the South.
Clark’s vision for a better life for
coffee farmers includes a continuous quality-focused chain that starts
with farmers who appreciate and develop their own product, and leads to
aware, coffee-appreciating Canadian consumers who can read on the
package about the individual farmer who grew their beans.
was Bridgehead’s original vision, and one the current company is
striving to recreate, Clark says, with current campaigns introducing
customers to two growers: Ramon Pablo of Guatemala, and Raphael Galvez
'Fair trade is in solidarity with groups fighting for a better world. It’s important, but it’s limited.'
Maybe the Canadians who buy the 98 percent of coffee
that is not fairly traded aren’t so uncaring after all. Fair trade is
“an ethical fig leaf,” according to Gavin Fridell, Canada in Research
Chair for international development at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax.
The author of Fair Trade Coffee: The Prospects and Pitfalls of
Market-Driven Social Justice (2007), Coffee (2014) and a handful of
similarly themed books, Fridell considers himself to be a progressive.
Like Sylla, his critiques of fair trade, he says, come from the left. He
still drinks fairly traded coffee — through increasingly with a heavy
heart. “I still buy it, because to not buy it is to concede to the idea
that we’re just unethical consumers who don’t care. Fair trade is in
solidarity with groups fighting for a better world. It’s important, but
Consumers don’t have much power to shape the
world, and individual consumers have virtually no power. To think
otherwise, says Fridell, is to entertain a fantasy hinging on the
presumption that fair trade will solve deeper systemic problems such as
“the state withdrawing from things like health, education and managing
prices.” At worst, in other words, fair trade enables the laissez-faire
economic agenda by tricking Canadian consumers, like me, into believing
we have more power than we do.
In the past, ethical coffee
packaging was designed to educate the consumer about the real lives of
farmers — something Bridgehead pioneered very well, Fridell explains.
Packages now are about presenting happiness and fairness, he says, not
about unfairness or poverty. They’re designed to make us feel good, not
to help us learn about real systemic trade issues.
he says, until 1989, the International Coffee Agreement kept prices
stable for all 25 million coffee farmers in the world. In 2015, fair
trade coffee provides the same function for just three percent of those
farmers. Governments are supposed to protect people, Fridell says — both
in the developing world and in Canada. It shouldn’t be left up to
Other examples pervade his work. In Vietnam and
Colombia, coffee-farming initiatives organized by government and farmers
have resulted in significantly better livelihoods than what’s offered
through northern-organized Fairtrade. In Ethiopia and Uganda, he writes,
a new report shows that plantation workers are paid more and treated
better than hired labourers on small Fairtrade-certified farms.
need to take on politics,” he says. “People don’t like politics.
Politics is messy. It requires accepting imperfections.”
But Fridell saves his most chilling indictment of fair trade for last. “I worry that the left in Canada doesn’t have
the ability to organize. So fair trade and ethical consumerism are a
concession, because we can’t actually achieve the goals we’d like to
“Give the consumer a break,” he says. “Don’t ask them to
walk down the grocery aisle with a kid on each arm and choose the right
soup. We need to keep the weight of the world off our shoulders and
acknowledge that as consumers, we don’t have the power to run things.”
course, Tom Smith, the executive director of Fairtrade Canada, argues
the exact opposite. “One of our campaigns this year is called ‘The Power
of You,’” he says in a phone interview from Ottawa. “An individual can
make a difference. It doesn’t take a city or a corporation; it takes one
person, when standing in the grocery aisle, choosing Kicking Horse or
Smith knows the system isn’t perfect. Numbers are
small — he doesn’t dispute the two percent figure. Because Fairtrade
International doesn’t work with large plantations, big store brands such
as Maxwell House and Nabob aren’t getting certified. Tim Hortons, by
far Canada’s largest purveyor of coffee, with 77 percent of the market,
has so far refused to work with Fairtrade Canada. Instead, it’s offering
its own “ethical” brand: Partnership Blend. (Fridell notes that the
only way you could be sure of what’s happening on the plantations is to
“send a graduate student to Guatemala for three years and report back.”)
Tim Hortons didn’t reply to my requests for information or interviews.
retail-oriented Smith, who started working in his dad’s grocery stores
as a child and went on to a career at Loblaws and Co-op Atlantic,
believes the key to growth is simple.
First, similar to what
Bridgehead’s Clark advocates, Fairtrade Canada needs to tell the fair
trade story with more fervour. What is it? Why buy it?
patient. “Fair trade is a movement, and a movement moves,” he says. “I
think Canadians are becoming more socially responsible. I believe in
this system. I want people to go into Loblaws and understand that mark.”
a church youth group back in the late 1980s, I performed in a play in
which the “cousin” of television commercial character Juan Valdez
arrives in a Canadian kitchen, takes a coffee-drinking,
newspaper-reading bathrobed man on a magical tour of his impoverished
plantation, and suggests he buy fair trade coffee forevermore. The man,
delighted with his enlightenment, agrees. Everyone claps.
teenager, it seemed so obvious to me that my parents and my congregation
could change the world by buying fair trade coffee (which they did:
Bridgehead). Today, as someone with two kids in tow when I grocery shop,
and a bank account that’s in line with other gen-Xers, I’m grateful
that Gavin Fridell lets me off the hook for shelling out excess money.
But he pushes us all into much more difficult territory — engaging with a
world that’s politically and economically complicated and demanding.
Does hope rest in expanding Canadians’ buy-in to fair trade? Or in something else entirely?
Combs, the lone surviving Bridgehead founder, is inspiringly bonded to
fair trade. The hope, she explains, was never that the movement would
subvert capitalism or change the trade relationship between every farmer
and consumer. “You have to start somewhere, even if it is but a drop in
As I write this, I’m sitting in my local
Starbucks, sipping a soy latte. Eight percent of Starbucks beans,
Fridell notes, are now certified Fairtrade. Earlier today, I ground,
percolated and drank several cups of Costco’s Kirkland brand
Fairtrade-certified coffee. These are imperfect coffees, for an
imperfect person, in an imperfect world.
In 2015, I’m sure Juan Valdez’s “cousin” would tell me, that’s not good enough.
Pieta Woolley is a journalist in Powell River, B.C.
Sidebar: What is Fairtrade certified?
certified is a set of standards agreed upon by Fairtrade International,
which includes representatives from 24 northern labelling organizations
(Fairtrade Canada is one) and the three major producer networks in
Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. After 50 years of various
efforts to create and enforce standards, Fairtrade International formed
in 1997 as an umbrella labelling organization.
If coffee farmers
meet the standards, they can sell their coffee as Fairtrade. The
companies that buy their beans can then use the Fairtrade logo on the
bags of beans they might sell at Loblaws or Costco. The logo guarantees
that Fairtrade has monitored the supply chain for adherence to Fairtrade
Coffee prices can be volatile. So Fairtrade requires
that farmers get stable minimum pricing. Under Fairtrade standards, one
pound of washed Arabica beans fetches a minimum of US$1.40. If they’re
organic, add another 30 cents. Fairtrade also pays a premium of 20 cents
per pound, which goes to fund community projects such as schools,
clinics, roads and other amenities.
Fairtrade requires minimum
labour conditions, including the right to collective bargaining and
freedom from discrimination. Fairtrade also sets standards for chemical
use, water conservation, waste disposal and other environmental
practices. It offers farmers access to credit and promotes long-term
relationships between bean buyers and farmers.
Sidebar: Are Canadians ethical shoppers?
Canadian consumers aren’t thinking about social issues while they shop
for groceries, says a recent analysis by Agriculture Canada. “Consumer
purchase behaviour is complex, involving numerous trade-offs. . . .
Rarely is a purchase made based on any single characteristic,
particularly on the social issues related to the product,” states the
2012 report Socially Conscious Consumer Trends: Fair Trade.
the real issue seems to be the lack of faith most Canadians have in
fair trade delivering on its claims. Just one in six Canadians “strongly
agrees” that “My shopping choices can make a positive difference to
farmers and workers in poor countries.” Though half of Canadians “agree”
with that statement, it’s clearly not enough to convince them to shell
out more for a bag of Kicking Horse or Just Us! — fairly traded coffee
lingers at about two percent of Canada’s coffee market. That’s in spite
of one in 10 Canadians claiming that fair trade’s influence is “very
high” when choosing what to buy.
The problem seems to be the
price. The survey asks, are fair trade goods worth paying more for? Just
one in 13 respondents strongly agrees.
When deciding where to
dine out, survey takers listed almost everything above fair trade: menu,
price and location come first. Fair trade, organic and sustainable
linger at the bottom of the list, attracting fewer than one in 10
What should purveyors of fair trade foods take away
from all this? Don’t depend on fair trade alone to sell your products.
“Combining Fair Trade claims with other ethically oriented benefits will
increase the attraction that socially conscious consumers have to
products. For more mainstream consumers, attaching Fair Trade with
attributes such as nutrition and healthy eating, value, quality, and
convenience is vital to sales growth,” the report states.
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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