What does that “Fair Trade” label on your $10 bag of premium coffee at the grocery store really mean? Is it helping pull people out of abject poverty? Is it benefiting people in dire need thousands of miles away?
This is the question I have some days when I reach for my Fair Trade-certified bag of coffee at my local food store. For many years now, I have been buying exclusively Fair Trade coffee and when I have the option, Fair Trade chocolate and other food stuffs labeled as such.
But is it really making a difference?
A recent study published on sustainability and farming may shed some light on the current state of affairs.
Researchers have documented higher wages, greater participation in community decisions, and even greater gender equity as outcomes from the minimum price that Fair Trade guarantees.
However, Eva Meemken, an agricultural economist at Cornell University, noticed some problems in the latest research: “They mostly look at farmers. Almost nobody looks at workers” on those farms, she says.
Meemken interviewed farmers and their hired workers in 50 different cocoa-growing cooperatives in Ivory Coast. About half of the cooperatives are Fair Trade-certified; the other half are not.
Her results have been published in the journal Nature Sustainability. She found that Fair Trade-certified cooperatives paid higher wages to their member farmers, compared with the non-Fair Trade cooperatives. Those benefits did not, however, extend to hired workers. Those workers were paid the same, whether the cooperative was certified at Fair Trade or not.
“It’s sad to see that there is no effect at the farmworker level,” Meemken says, “because those are the poorest members of the supply chain and those with almost no power.”
Most members of the cooperatives that she studied hired at least a few workers year-round, and nearly all of the farms hired additional workers temporarily for the harvest. These migrant workers were from neighboring countries such as Togo or Burkina Faso where conditions are far worse than they are in Ivory Coast. These workers usually don’t speak the local language and many of them do not speak French, the official language there.
Fair Trade USA, one of the major groups that manage Fair Trade certification, says that it is discussing ways to help workers who are hired by cooperative workers. In a statement emailed to NPR, the group said that it was upgrading its standards to require that workers “have access to personal protective equipment, housing, and drinking water of equal quality to that of the farmers themselves.” When it comes to wages, the Fair Trade standard simply requires that “wages and benefits must always at least comply with legal requirements.”
Meemken says that her study shows that “everyone needs to be more realistic” about what Fair Trade and similar certifications can accomplish. Promising that Fair Trade will “lift everyone out of poverty,” she says, “might create problems and reduce consumer trust in the long term.”
While the current state of affairs seems disheartening, at least there is someone shedding light on the problem. With continued focus on the issues, we will hopefully see more improvement for everyone involved in the process.
The original article written by Dan Charles was published on NPR’s website can be accessed here: