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Exploring the term Fair Trade: Perspectives on its Meaning in the Coffee Industry

In my previous blog, I shared a summary of how to buy coffee. This time, we're going to delve deeper and analyze one of the most famous and widely distributed elements along the chain: fair trade.


Fair trade has a long history, with various perspectives and critiques surrounding it. In its most recognizable form, it operates within the existing market framework with its primary aim being to address a significant issue: the imbalance in the trade system between producer countries, primarily tropical nations, and consumer countries, mainly in the Northern Hemisphere. This label is often associated with major commodity products such as sugar, bananas, cocoa, and, of course, coffee.


Within the ocean of information I found across the internet, the most interesting points I want to share here are the foundations by which we approach the concept of fair trade. All are trying to address the same issue but from different starting points.


Some approach fair trade as a way to reintroduce noneconomic values like morality, sustainability, and community into market transactions. In this sense, it somehow pictures the idea that the certification corrects the flaws of the existing system by facilitating trade on fair terms.


For some, they see the market itself as fundamentally flawed and in need of restructuring. They believe that the systems need a complete overhaul of market mechanisms to prioritize values beyond profit, aiming to direct capital directly to producers and eliminate intermediaries. The aim is not merely to participate in the market but to challenge its very foundations and reshape its outcomes.


Fair trade can also be seen as a practical manifestation of a social movement prioritizing human needs and environmental sustainability over corporate profit. In this case, the certification serves as a transitional strategy, working within the market for the present while envisioning a post-capitalist future.


Working hands
Working hands

Another way to look at this certification is that it acts as a bridge between producers and consumers, providing some insight into the journey of products from farm to table. An important difference is that products with fair trade labels are mostly located at big supermarkets, competing for space alongside conventional goods in grocery stores, appealing to consumers' sense of social responsibility.


However, the involvement of intermediaries along the supply chain, which is most likely found in big commercialized supermarket coffee, often reduces the share of profits reaching the producers, illustrating the challenges of maintaining fairness within market dynamics. This is one of the highest critiques, where fair trade is used by big corporations mostly as a marketing strategy.


Despite the diversity of perspectives within the fair trade movement, its growth and success have brought underlying tensions to the surface. Debates over the inclusion of corporate giants, certification of agribusiness plantations versus small-farmer organizations, and the balance between movement-oriented businesses and large companies underscore the complex dynamics at play.

New Age Fair Trade Terms


On coffee packaging, we can now find different terms that are trying to alleviate the same issues as fair trade: ensuring that farmers are getting what they are supposed to be paid, or at least, with the price set, they can sustain their lives (whatever that means to everyone). Terms such as "ethically sourced," "direct trade," "local," or in our case, "equal trade" (yes, we invented that term).


Ethical and Direct trade Coffee
Ethical and Direct trade Coffee

But for me, the most important thing is, can these words on the coffee packaging - fair trade, ethically sourced coffee, direct trade - truly affect meaningful change within the confines of the coffee market? Or do they risk becoming merely a marketing gesture, injecting ethical considerations into an otherwise unchanged system?


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