Sunday, January 13, 2008

The State I Am In

I'm a little bit grumpy.  This weekend, one of my favorite radio stations, WAMU, helped produce and broadcast a segment of The State We're In, which oversimplified the Fair Trade coffee business.  Usually I think all media coverage is good on some level because it helps build exposure.  But on this  Sunday afternoon I just don't have the patience with journalists making the mistake of confusing the term "fair trade" with "free trade" in episode promos.  Sure the occasional slip of the tongue is allowed. When I first started with FTRN in 2001 I caught myself for the first few months and learned a lot about the power of aural conditioning!  But a professional journalist, especially coming from the Netherlands where the Fair Trade movement has such an impressive history (see chapter 5 in my book for details), should check their facts!

That was just the start...then there was the shot about "smiling farmers" on coffee packages, as if they were hiding awful realities about coffee farmers.  Do they suggest emaciated babies in coffee-producing countries?  Please.  

Coffee buyers were quoted who spoke of "issues" with Fair Trade cooperatives, such as lack of profitability related to issues with credit.   Credit is extremely important to any business, Fair Trade or not, but just like most folks couldn't explain their credit card debt in 30 seconds, neither should a quick swipe be taken at cooperatives about how they manage their resources.

If the media wants to poke at the Fair Trade coffee business they should ask why Fair Trade is it relevant now.  Another radio program I do like, Marketplace, recently characterized coffee prices as hitting multi-year highs.  Aren't high prices fair?  That kind of inquiry might uncover that there is much more to Fair Trade than the price.  Fair Trade is distinguished by its commitment to democratic organizations, by its assurance of technical assistance--such as pre-harvest financing, and by its long-term commitment to disadvantaged producers in search of a market.  

Consumers are in search of quality coffee and other products, and they are often in search of justice.  Surely we need good information to make informed decisions.  We won't get them just from labels or packaging, and it doesn't seem like we'll get them from a certain radio show.  


  1. It is amazing how people can misunderstand fair trade and all it stands for... but we are lucky to have people like you to guide us!

  2. Anonymous9:46 PM

    You mention that we can't get all the information we need from labels. I was recently asked if fair trade is just another clever marketing ploy ( My response is that with FLO labeling, at least we are able to understand the ethical stance of the product. Agreed?

  3. Well, I don't really think a product has an ethical stance. It is the company behind the product that is of most interest. One way to gauge the commitment of a brand is to see how much of its product line is fairly traded and if that amount has increased steadily why or why not. Again you can't find this just from a label; you have to do a little work but hopefully companies will help you by sharing their commitments openly and broadly...a conscious consumer and usually figure out what is and isn't greenwashing from reading between the lines.