Thursday, October 04, 2007

The wonderful, if somewhat complicated, world of Fair Trade in LA

The good folks of Fair Trade LA invited me to do a book signing at the "Just Lives" festival this past weekend. Wonderful people on the coalition and a cadre of volunteers organized Fair Trade vendors and live music next to the Open Air Farmers Market in Hollywood. It was a sunny California day and the energy from the consumer power also helped to make the event alive with interest and excitement. Kudos to all who participated!

At 10:00 a few dozen of us went to Commonwork Coffee to discuss Fair Trade. My Fair Trade LA host, the wonderful Gloria Jimenz of CRS, mentioned to me in passing that Commonwork "isn't Fair Trade." Huh? But then I came to find out that the restaurant doesn't use Fair Trade "certified" coffee or tea products. I wasn't able to meet with the owners to explore their position, but from my chats with the baristas I got the sense that the cafe was very committed to Fair Trade principles, and organic for that matter, but the issue was with "the label." Ah yes, the problems with our label.

It is hard for Fair Trade educators like myself to put in easy sound bites the various perspectives on the value, appropriateness, and credibility of a Fair Trade product label. (Okay, so that's part of why I wrote a book) But as I had a whole hour with the group, I started off by saying "Fair Trade is not a label and it is not a price." and then we went on to discuss the principles of Fair Trade, as articulated by FINE, that DO define Fair Trade. Fair Trade is a "trading partnership based on dialogue, transparency and respect" which works to make trade more sustainable for disadvantaged producers. It was a great discussion and thanks to all those who turned out on an early Sunday morning.

As I look back on the conversation, fresh from my experiences with Cooperative Coffees in Nica, and before I head off to my next book signing (hello Minnesota!), I thought I'd invite you to explore this issue a bit. Check out the good folks of Just Coffee in Madison, WI and the leadership of TransFair USA to get a sense of some perspectives. These links and their comments should lead you to some good is Fair Trade month after all, what better time to dig deeper into Fair Trade? And, next time you are in LA, stop by a Commonwork cafe location. Of course, if you live there, volunteer for the Fair Trade LA Coalition because there is lots of good work to be done!


  1. This is very thought provoking. But certification is still more good than bad, right?

    I mean, it is a flawed system, I have noticed, but it is also necessary to some extent, right?

    Or maybe different levels of certification should be created, because all companies, cafes, retailers, etc. are different.

    This is a very different arguments with respects to certification, you might find it interesting:

    I always try to stay in the middle of arguments, trying to find a balance :) but I do understand your point.

    Good job with the blog!

  2. Thanks very much for the additional link to the TransFair site. I definitely try to stay in the middle too and appreciate the work of my colleauges at TransFair USA. I've seen lots of progress made, and sometimes confess to being weary with colleagues who continue to beat the same drum against FLO.

    But, because at least two producers--one from Guatemala and one from Peru--I met at the Cooperative Coffee AGM expressed dissatisfaction with the FLO system I thought I should put it out there. I am VERY concerned about transparency within our movement and didn't think I should talk about Fair Trade month event that was happening in a coffee store that didn't have the words "Fair Trade" visible anywhere. It was a disconnect I wanted to share, in the hopes that people like you would respond. THANKS!