The world of ethical trading is being challenged from within by an American claim that opening up Fairtrade certification to large coffee producers will open the door for a wider amount of ‘greenwashing’, the practice by which large brands are alleged to claim credit for fairer purchasing policies than they actually operate.
The British arm of the Fairtrade movement has been quick to distance itself from the situation, saying firmly that it remains in support of giving the Fairtrade Mark to products from small producers only.
The difference in the ways that international Fairtrade movements work was highlighted in late May when Green Mountain Coffee Roasters were the target of a full-page campaigning advertisement in the press in Vermont, the company’s home state.
Green Mountain is the world’s largest handler of Fairtrade certified coffee, using 26 million pounds of it a year. The brand has a reputation for generous support to economic development in coffee-growing communities.
However, a competing organisation called upon the company to sever its ties with Fair Trade USA, the body which certifies products as eligible to be sold as Fairtrade, alleging that the certification body had ‘changed the rules to allow large-scale plantations and private estates into the Fairtrade coffee system, potentially putting at risk the very survival of the small farmer co-operatives’.
The complainers are effectively saying that it is wrong to allow big producers to qualify for Fairtrade status – these big companies can take care of themselves, and only want to be able to use the Fairtrade mark for marketing purposes, whereas the system is supposed to be for the benefit of impoverished small producers. It has been alleged that large companies will use the Fairtrade mark to ‘get the halo effect, and confuse consumers about their overall buying practices’.
The big advertisement consisted of an ‘open letter’, in which the Equal Exchange organisation ‘strongly encouraged’ Green Mountain to ‘open its eyes’ and withdraw its support from Fair Trade USA.
In reply, the American certifying organisation has reportedly said that ‘the future of Fair Trade lies in a more inclusive approach’.
Other Fairtrade bodies around the world have disagreed with this move, and the British Fairtrade organisation has said it will continue to support small producers.
“Fairtrade International’s coffee standard remains a solidly ‘small producer organisation only’ model, as it does for cocoa, cotton, sugar, nuts and several other product categories,” Fairtrade in the UK replied.
“The consensus in the rest of Fairtrade International’s family is that for coffee we should focus on continuing to grow the opportunities for organisations of small scale producers. We’re disappointed that FTUSA has decided to unilaterally break this consensus.
“On the issue of one coffee business challenging another on this subject in the US, we are not exactly surprised! The US fair trade movement has always been incredibly diverse with a wide range of different actors, ranging from ‘purist’ 100% Fairtrade to more mainstream businesses. Unlike in the UK, where many of the 100% Fairtrade organisations have backed and championed one Fairtrade Mark, in the US there has never been the same degree of convergence behind one certification label.”
In the UK, Fairtrade has also now announced that The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games will be the ‘fairest’ games ever, in terms of Fairtrade coffee and food being served. The expected amount consumed is calculated to produce an estimated Fairtrade premium of £100,000 generated over the six week period of the Games.
However, Fairtrade commented that: ‘the decision to serve Fairtrade food is part of the London 2012 Food Vision, which sets the sustainability standards for catering at the event.’
Whether there has actually been any such ‘decision’ has already been the subject of some contention. The original Vision document by the Games organisers appeared to refer to Fairtrade products as being the approved items it wanted served, rather than being a specific directive. However, one of the biggest fair-trade coffee brands then went over the top and issued a press release saying ‘the Games have been declared Fairtrade!’, which may never have been the case.
When consulted, the head of Fairtrade, Harriet Lamb commented that if and when the Games make such a declaration, she will be expecting medals of Fairtrade gold to be awarded.
There has recently been interest among the roaster and barista communities in a report which appears to chart the amount of Fairtrade coffee used by major coffee companies.
The study by Michigan State University came to wide attention within the trade in May, but is dated last year and possibly uses data from 2009.
According to these figures, the amount of Fairtrade coffee used by Starbucks appears to be the most generous in the trade, at a reported five per cent of the brand’s overall consumption at the time, or about 19 million pounds by weight. By contrast, the biggest world name in instant coffee is reported to have a Fairtrade proportion of 0.0025 per cent of its total coffee usage, or four million pounds of coffee.
It can be expected that this will create even more debate over whether such a small percentage constitutes ‘greenwashing’, or whether the purchase of several million pounds of certified coffee should be considered a praiseworthy effort in its own right.