Who Benefits? Learning more about Fair Trade

Alternative Grounds is Cuppa Change’s fair trade coffee supplier, and they do a great job providing us with freshly roasted coffee so that we can support our international development projects.

Last week, Linda Burnside of Alternative Grounds did a fair trade presentation for my son’s Grade 6 classroom.  This was, of course, very interesting to me, as I still have so much to learn about fair trade.  So while my son and his 11 year-old colleagues learned all sorts of interesting things about fair trade, I was madly taking notes in the back of the classroom.

Here is some of what I learned:

Alternative Grounds is part of a fair trade co-operative.  There are 24 members like Alternative Grounds in the co-op, and together they work with 21 different coffee producer groups from 11 different countries.

Linda told the kids about the goals of fair trade:

–       to build capacity and opportunity for independent, small coffee producers around the world

–       To help people use their own knowledge and skills, and share that with others

–       To help people have a good quality of life.

Fair trade achieves these goals in several ways:

–       It provides access to a market.  Small coffee producers need infrastructure, roads, transportation and communication in order to sell their product.  Fair trade gives them a way and a network to do that.

–       Fair trade works with democratically organized farmers.

–       Fair trade means commitment: coffee co-ops work with producers over time, building relationships and commitment.  Coffee farmers don’t have to always worry about finding their next buyer.  They can plan for the future.

–       Fair trade means paying a fair price for the coffee.

–       Fair trade means providing access to credit, so that coffee farmers don’t get paid just once a year, but get paid installments over time for their crop.  In this way, families can live with less hardship throughout the year.

–       Fair trade means transparency.  This means that anyone can see the price that co-ops pay for their coffee, and that the contracts between producer and buyer are open.  There is a great system called Fair Trade Proof which focuses on transparency in the fair trade coffee industry, allowing anyone to trace the coffee from a roaster to a farmer and vice versa, and to see the contract under which the coffee was sold.  Alternative Grounds is part of this system.

–       Fair trade is committed to education (hence Linda’s presentation to my son’s Grade 6 class).

–       Fair trade products sold through Alternative Grounds are certified organic and are grown under rigorous environmental standards.

–       The fair trade system is accountable to all parties.

Ultimately, fair trade is not a label or a charity, it is a business model.  And more than a business model, it is a social and economic movement for justice.

In conventional trade, the goal is usually about making the biggest profit possible.  There is often very little relationship between the makers of a product and the purchasers.  So, if there is no relationship, the buyer may go where the product is cheapest.  That means possibly going to a country with fewer human rights laws, or where the environmental standards are low.

Fair trade is about people, environment and quality of life before profits.

Linda told the Grade 6 kids that she has a question that is often asked in the Fair Trade world, but that is also a question that will prove useful to them throughout their life:

Who benefits?

Who benefits, and why?

In Linda’s world, if the answer is not the small farmer, it’s not fair trade.

Thanks, Linda, for a great presentation, and for your great coffee.

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