The evolution of Fairtrade: Why we need to go a step further

Fairtrade has done great things for raising public awareness that free markets need to be invigilated, but does its model consistently improve the lives of producers? 

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The Independent Online

The Fairtrade movement began as a response to certain failures within global markets to protect workers, and to challenge what many considered unacceptable colonial merchant styles of trading where large businesses held too much power.

Fairtrade has done great things for raising public awareness that free markets need to be invigilated, but does its model of setting a base price for the purchase of goods consistently improve the lives of the producers?

Evidence gathered by researchers at Harvard and the University of California suggests that, taking the coffee market as an example, the answer is no. 

A coffee picker in Yayu Forest (Emily Garthwaite )

One UK based coffee importer called Union Hand Roasted Coffee have gone to much further lengths than any other to grow in parallel with the farmers they employ around the world.

Union believes that a price support mechanism is not enough to improve the living standards of the famers and that the only way to improve the quality of life of workers is through direct engagement on the sites and through making an enduring commitment to the farms.

I went to Ethiopia to document a project set up in Yayu Forest between Union Coffee, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and The Darwin Initiative, a sustainability grants scheme funded by the UK Government.

The project in Yayu aims to address biodiversity conservation in this Ethiopian wild coffee forest and they have set out to educate the local coffee industry on how to earn more through the coffee in their forests.

A woman working at a coffee drying bed at a farm in Yayu (Alan Schaller)

Union calls their approach ‘Union Direct Trade’. It is a label that is backed by a robust Code of Conduct that the company stands by and which looks to improve in a few key ways on the system that Fairtrade employs.

Jeremy Torz assessing the quality of a farm’s harvest (Alan Schaller)

The primary focus is on improving the quality of the produce and working with the farmers actively to achieve that.

When this goal has been realised and the farms are producing high end coffee, this allows for long term sustainability and enables access to a higher tier of the coffee market and therefore more money than Fairtrade often commands.

Relying on consumers to return to a coffee out of a belief in a certification stamp on a packet is not as effective as promoting a product that is highly competitive among the finest coffees being produced anywhere. 

Farmers being trained at a farm in Yayu ( Emily Garthwaite)

Union travels and brings experts to the farms to begin advising and developing, and once the coffee is at the right quality, give the farms and cooperatives real world connections to sell at good prices.

Union regularly visits all the countries they source from to continue building relationships and trust, educating the farmers and to do quality control checks. Another benefit of regular visits is to monitor adherence to the Code of Conduct, protecting both regular and seasonal workers at the farms. This is something the traditional Fairtrade model is not able to always cover sufficiently.

Members of a coffee cooperative in Yayu talking business with Graciano Cruz, an industry expert and coffee farmer himself, who along with Union is helping development in the region (Emily Garthwaite)

So why aren’t more companies already do this kind of work? The short answer is risk.

The risk for Union is that this proactive involvement is costly for them and relies heavily upon the cooperatives and farmers maintaining standards when Union is not present.

Part of the development program is teaching the coffee growing process to children at school. Many of these children will grow up to work with coffee, so having an understanding from a young age is a big advantage for them (Alan Schaller)

It is unavoidable that in order for Direct Trade to work profit margins will be squeezed, which is not something that appeals to most businesses, particularly start-ups without a lot of cash backing them.

Improving the output from a farm can take years. Ineffective farming traditions and habits are hard to break for example, but without standing by the farmers during the early stages of transition, Union could never achieve their end goal of quality and sustainability. 

Jeremy Torz standing among wild coffee trees in Yayu Forest. (Alan Schaller)

“This process can be frustrating at times, but it is enjoyable and rewarding to come out to somewhere like Ethiopia, Rwanda or Guatemala, to sit with a group of farmers and know that we are creating coffees that we are as proud of as the farmers because of the journey we have been on together,” said Jeremy Torz, co-founder of Union.

“You won’t always get what you want, and change can be slow moving, but it’s about sticking by the farmers over the years. It’s an important part of making direct trade real.”

To find out more about Union’s partnership with Kew and the work in Yayu forest click here 

Alan Schaller is a London-based photojournalist, street photographer and writer