"When I arrived in Madison in the mid-1990s, the only fair trade products were Equal Exchange coffee and some alternative craft stores," says Dan Jaffee, an assistant professor of sociology at Michigan State University who received his Ph.D. from the Nelson Institute at UW-Madison last year. He swiftly got involved in the burgeoning fair trade movement, looking to build stronger connections between consumers and producers. This found an early well of support in Madison, namely in the form of the coffee bean.
The pioneering U.S. fair trade coffee roaster Equal Exchange, Jaffee explains, selected Madison as a location to begin building consumer awareness about the global developmental movement. Subsequently, he says, "hundreds of Madisonians dropped off cards asking their local groceries and cafes to stock and serve fair trade products." Aided by the profusion of farmers' markets, related food-oriented groups and the efforts of coffee shop owners, co-ops and advocacy organizations, the city has become a nexus of support and infrastructure for the project. "Consumer knowledge and awareness of fair trade has mushroomed here," Jaffee notes, "along with the variety and range of products that are available."
Jaffee's work on fair trade in Madison culminated in his book Brewing Justice: Fair Trade Coffee, Sustainability, and Survival, which follows the work of the Michiza co-operative in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. In an interview with The Daily Page, Jaffee discusses the development of the movement, the central role played by commodity of coffee, and what it means when you buy a hot cup of fair trade brew.
Where does the consumer market in Madison fit into the broader system of fair trade products?
Jaffee: Madison has become a real hub for fair trade, not just regionally but even nationally. Just Coffee -- the area's only 100% fair trade roaster -- has done a great deal to educate the community. The national organization SERRV--which was one of the very first groups selling fair trade crafts as far back as the 1950s -- has moved its national offices here. The Madison Fair Trade Action Alliance (MadFTAA) does good educational work around not just fair trade products but broader issues of trade policy. Consumers in Madison are really fortunate to have not just a wealth of fair trade choices, but an activist and organizational infrastructure to back it up.
All of this growth has happened in tandem with the growth of fair trade in the U.S. as a whole. Fair trade certification (which was pioneered in Europe in the 1980s) only began in the U.S. in 1999. Since then, fair trade coffee sales alone have grown from 1 million pounds to 64 million pounds last year, accounting for 3% of all U.S. coffee sales. Fair trade certification has now gone far beyond coffee to about 40 different products from 1,500 retail companies, including bananas, tea, sugar, cocoa, honey, orange juice, fresh fruit, rice, wine, and even soccer balls, cut flowers, and cotton clothing.
Why is coffee the commodity around which fair trade has coalesced?
Coffee became the first certified fair trade product in part because of the particular configuration of forces that brought the Mexican coffee cooperative UCIRI and the Dutch NGO Solidaridad together in the mid-1980s to create the fair trade system.
Coffee was also in many ways the ideal fair trade product: From the point it is picked to the moment of grinding it remains a discrete physical object; it undergoes relatively few transformations along the way and changes hands fewer times than many other commodities. It is not perishable ("green" coffee beans can be stored for up to a year), and it is produced in large part by peasant farmers on small plots they own.
This allows consumers to visualize a more or less direct link with the producer, and to imagine (even if it is inaccurate) that every fair trade certified bean in their morning cup was picked by democratically organized, fairly paid farmers in one particular cooperative in a specific place. It's this ability of fair trade to "put a face" on commodities, to convey "information" about the social conditions under which they were produced and about the people who produced them that is key to the movement's moral power.
Where did you conduct your field research?
Mexico is the country where the fair trade model originated, and also the world's largest producer of fairly traded coffee. Deep in the Sierra Juárez mountains of the southern state of Oaxaca, in two Zapotec indigenous villages where some coffee farmers are organized into cooperative producer associations, I encountered an ideal case study of fair trade in action.
The book compares indigenous coffee producers who belong to the Michiza cooperative and sell their coffee on the international fair trade market, and their neighbors who must sell coffee through traditional "coyotes" or intermediaries. Living and working in these communities between 2001 and 2004, I found that fair trade is indeed generating significant economic, social and environmental benefits for the farmers and families who participate in the system, and also for their communities as a whole. However, the impacts of fair trade on the ground are a complex and nuanced story, which I explore in detail in the book.
Is this a cooperative that provides beans for Just Coffee?
Michiza is selling its coffee to U.S. buyers for the first time this summer, and the organization Cooperative Coffees is their first buyer. Just Coffee (which is a member of Coop Coffees) will soon be buying and roasting Michiza's beans. Michiza has sold their coffee to fair trade buyers in Germany, France and Austria for 15 years, but they were looking for a market in the U.S. Their relationship was established by getting together people I knew in both Cooperative Coffees and Michiza; they sampled the coop's coffee and met with the directors, and decided to place an order for several shipping containers of organic coffee.
What effect is a consumer in Madison who buys a fair trade cup of coffee or bag of beans really having?
Madison already has a comparatively strong market for fair trade goods, particularly coffee. As this type of consumable increasingly becomes yet another brand sold by major retailers, will the local establishments be able to keep up?
In recent years fair trade certifiers, particularly in the US, have increasingly turned to large corporate retailers -- entities with no history of allegiance to the core values of fair trade -- to boost demand, with a good deal of success. Yet many fair traders are asking whether this can be done without losing the soul of fair trade. Is it possible to scale up without selling out?
There is increasingly a split between the small, movement-oriented companies that sell 100% fair trade products, and the large, even transnational, corporations that have begun to participate in the system, but usually at token levels of supply. These include Starbucks, Nestle, Procter & Gamble and even Coca-Cola. The decisions by the U.S. fair trade certifier (TransFair USA) to license the use of the fair trade seal to Starbucks and other corporate players without a commitment to a minimum volume level or to increase the level of purchasing over time have generated a great deal of controversy within the fair trade world.
Another issue is the fact that the base price -- the minimum price paid to fair trade farmer co-ops -- has remained virtually stagnant over the past 19 years, and has lost much of its purchasing power due to inflation.
What's the next step for fair trade products, particularly for a consumer here?
The next step for fair trade is going beyond just paying a "fair price," to giving farmers a stake in the retail profits generated by their products. This would involve businesses in the consuming countries including producer groups as business partners or co-owners.
Jaffee is returning to Madison to introduce his new book and discuss the fair trade movement. He'll be speaking tonight (Thursday, July 19) at Escape Java Joint on Willy Street, discussing his research and showing images from his work in Oaxaca. Jaffee will be joined by Matt Earley of Just Coffee, who will be unveiling its new fair trade product Café Juan Chacón from El Salvador. This event is free and open to the public.