The Problem with Fair Trade Coffee – Summer 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review

Updates: A June 2, 2014 article at is entitled: “It’s not fair to bash Fairtrade.”

A May 30, 2014 article at the website of the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Greenwich is entitled: “Fairtrade benefits in the complex world of sustainable development.”

A June 6, 2014 article at the Center for Global Development is entitled: “Million Dollar Question: Does Fairtrade Work?”

[End of updates]


I recently read an article in the print edition of The May 26, 2014 Globe and Mail about a research report based upon a four-year study of Fairtrade certification programs in Uganda and Ethiopia.

Cloverdale Mall at Highway 427 and Dundas

I bought the print edition of the Globe that day while visiting Cloverdale Mall, located north of Dundas Street West along The East Way in Etobicoke.

Early Saturday morning, May 31, 2014 view of Food Court at Cloverdale Mall. Jaan Pill photo

I enjoy Cloverdale Mall. It’s a place where people like to sit and chat at the food court. The emotional tone of the mall is sociable, relaxed, and friendly.

It’s a great place to stop for coffee (for example, at the Second Cup, which also provides a Wi-Fi connection at the food court) and think about how we make sense of things.

School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London)

The research was published in April 2014 by the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Since reading the Globe and Mail article, I’ve begun to seek out additional information about fair trade coffee – and about the wider topic of what can be done, in practical terms, to reduce poverty.

I’ve placed on hold several Toronto Public Library books that focus on the economics of fair trade coffee.

The distinction between rhetoric and reality, with regard to this topic – as with regard to related topics – is of interest to me.

Stanford Social Innovation Review

Among the resources that have helped me to better understand the fair trade coffee narrative is an article entitled “The Problem with Fair Trade Coffee” in the Summer 2011 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

The opening three paragraphs read:

  • Peter Giuliano is in many ways the model of a Fair Trade coffee advocate. He began his career as a humble barista, worked his way up the ladder, and in 1995 co-founded Counter Culture Coffee, a wholesale roasting and coffee education enterprise in Durham, N.C. In his role as the green coffee buyer, Giuliano has developed close working relationships with farmers throughout the coffee-growing world, traveling extensively to Latin America, Indonesia, and Africa. He has been active for more than a decade in the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the world’s largest coffee trade association, and currently serves as its president.
  • Giuliano originally embraced the Fair Trade-certification model—which pays producers an above-market “fair trade” price provided they meet specific labor, environmental, and production standards—because he believed it was the best way to empower growers and drive the sustainable development of one of the world’s largest commodities. Today, Giuliano no longer purchases Fair Trade-certified coffee for his business. “I think fair trade as a concept is very relevant,” says Giuliano. But “I think the Fair Trade-certified FLO model is not relevant at all and kind of never has been, because they were doing something different than they were selling to the consumer. … That’s exactly why I left TransFair [now Fair Trade USA]. They’re selling a different thing than they’re producing.”
  • Giuliano is among a growing group of coffee growers, roasters, and importers who believe that Fair Trade-certified coffee is not living up to its chief promise to reduce poverty. Retailers explain that neither FLO – the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International umbrella group – nor Fair Trade USA, the American standards and certification arm of FLO, has sufficient data showing positive economic impact on growers. Yet both nonprofits state that their mission is to “use a market-based approach that empowers farmers to get a fair price for their harvest, helps workers create safe working conditions, provides a decent living wage, and guarantees the right to organize.”1 (In this article, the term Fair Trade coffee refers to coffee that has been certified as “Fair Trade” by FLO or Fair Trade USA; the term Fair Trade refers to the certification model of FLO and Fair Trade USA; and the term fair trade refers to the movement to improve the lives of growers and other producers through trade.)

[End of excerpt]

Saving for School (2013)

Saving for School (2013) is a book by Gail Vaz-Oxlade that I’ve been reading recently. In that book,  I came across David Bach’s term “The Latte Factor.” It’s based on an interesting concept:

“A latte spurned is a fortune earned.”
– People Magazine

The phrase, as Gail Vaz-Oxlade notes (p. 9 of the above-noted book), refers to “how much money we waste that we could be saving.” The concept is of interest – including in the context of my recent study of research related to Fair Trade Coffee,

With regard to saving for school, still another topic comes to mind: Which kinds of school experiences will help young people find employment, in a vastly altered economic landscape?

At some point, quite a few educated young people will likely spend some time working in coffee shops – which serve as a great resource for networking, and for learning about the world of business – including the roles that branding and marketing play in the launch of any business enterprise.


A Huffington Post article, downloaded July 19, 2015, is entitled: The Myth of the Ethical Shopper. We’re still trying to eliminate sweatshops and child labor by buying right. But that’s not how the world works in 2015.

Also of interest: The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (2004).

A May 26, 2016 London School of Economics article is entitled: “From the Third Way to the Big Society: the rise and fall of social capital.”


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