It is a simple cup at first, with a simple logo. “Fair Trade Certified” is plastered on the coffee maker. The person on the logo is present with a globe, and intertwined in black and white, as if two different worlds are becoming one. No logo could better describe the intent of a particular group: the Fair Trade Organization.
However, the Fair Trade Organization goes deeper than just combining two worlds as one, and deeper than making a single person important to another person or part of the world. While many global markets continue to look for quick and cheap labor in order to make the largest profit, many human rights groups are joining together to eliminate such labor abuses in developing countries. One such organization, Fair Trade, is not unfamiliar to the MSU campus and its surrounding area. [coffee1]
“Fair Trade is a way of achieving greater social and economic justice through the marketplace. It brings farmers and consumers closer, and gives more money back to the farmer,” said Daniel Jaffee, sociology professor and author of Brewing Justice: Fair Trade Coffee, Sustainability, and Survival.
Fair Trade, a group that has been gaining publicity as it prolongs its stay in East Lansing, is a group looking out for those who could arguably be the victims of the global trading market. The organization is involved in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America – parts of the world that, to some Americans, are seen as torn by crises such as civil war, poverty and disease.
[jaffee]Now almost 10 years after its official birth in the states, how is Fair Trade living up to its initiatives as centralized governments take precedence in the global market? While farmers in developing countries have begun to realize the bargains and benefits of being a member of Fair Trade, what else is being done to assure that everyone receives equal opportunity to a better living standard? Rebecca Meuninck, a fourth year graduate student in anthropology, spoke on this most basic problem currently facing Fair Trade. “There’s more supply than there is demand (for the products),” she said.
This imbalance is a result of Fair Trade’s increased popularity among small farmers, Meuninck explained. As the popularity and benefits of Fair Trade become more appealing to farmers in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia, so does the idea of getting involved. Thus not only are there more and more farmers, there are more and more of their products to be sold. Professor Jaffee went on to explain why popularity of the organization is no surprise: “(Farmers are) less likely to be in debt, because they’re paid before their crop is even harvested. Their household income is higher, and they belong to an organization working together with other farmers.” Moreover, Jaffee explained consumers can have interest in the organization, because they’d have a better sense of where their coffee is coming from – perhaps why the movement is growing, especially in the wake of an organic food-only fad.
Still, fixing the problem of excessive supply and little demand doesn’t seem like it would require an economics background. The most obvious solution would be to expand Fair Trade’s markets. Or would it? “Some Fair Trade members want more participation from the corporations like Starbucks, while others fear Fair Trade would be watered down with more corporation participation,” Meuninck said.
Since its creation, Fair Trade in the U.S. has immensely increased its market of buyers. For example, while Sparty’s, MSU’s coffee-shop chain, is heavily involved with Fair Trade products (check out the logo), what some students do not always realize is places like Starbucks, Beaner’s, Paramount Coffee and Espresso Royale also do partake in using Fair Trade, but generally to a lesser degree. Sparty’s buys 100 percent Fair Trade certified products. On the other hand, according to Professor Jaffee, a company like Starbucks buys a small amount of Fair Trade coffee, but invests more in their own company’s coffee-producing community promotions.
Still, Fair Trade has been an organization centered on “the little people” of the business since it started, which is where the line is currently being drawn in the system. “Some feel that big corporations would just use the logo as a sort of PR move,” Meuninck said. Jaffee reiterated this point by explaining Fair Trade coffee products can only come from small farmer plots, and thus those farmers could reasonably be disinterested in wanting to become something bigger.[beans1]
The obstacles do not end for Fair Trade with adjusting a supply and demand model with large companies. English education senior Christin Vasilenko, also the president of MSU’s Students for Fair Trade, said Fair Trade found itself having to make adjustments back when the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) passed in 2005. Because CAFTA endorses free trade and not fair trade, fair trade was stuck paying high tariffs and taxes on imports and exports, while those that labeled themselves free trade members did not suffer such consequences. “Free trade is getting workers to work for less pay and benefits, while big businesses get the rewards,” Vasilenko said. “Fair Trade is combating that idea.”
CAFTA, an exclusive law that encourages the free flow of the global market, provided benefits to those who would work with the national government. These benefits help organizations like the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, but forget about those little people involved in non-governmental organizations like Fair Trade, which, Jaffee said, undoes the local level benefits these farmers see.
With all of the debate stirring, one must wonder what exactly Fair Trade is doing to correct its economic issues or rise against its ever-present crowd of opposition. Meuninck said there are only discussions of what to do right now, but given the concern of some of the trade’s there-from-the-start farmers, it is difficult to decipher what exactly will happen.
So far, the Fair Trade committee is considering using a type of ranking system on their certified product stamp, Meuninck said. “For example, someone like Sparty’s who uses 100 percent Fair Trade would be a gold member, while someone like Starbucks might be a bronze or so,” she said. The system would then encourage buyers back home to look for only the highest certifications, which in turn would not only give the most back to the farmers using Fair Trade, but would prolong the existence and growth of the organization by distributing more supply to a higher demand.
“The extra capital gets circulated around the community,” Jaffee said. He pointed to a particular instance he recognized while working in Latin America where an existing member of Fair Trade hired his neighbors to help with labor. “It’s like a ripple effect,” he said.
[vasilenko]Vasilenko insists the organization is not only about people in developing countries needing help and first world nations providing it, either. “It’s about empowering the people in the developing world, so they can sustain their culture and gain respect from the rest of the world,” she said. Like the logo of Fair Trade, two worlds can combine for the betterment of a nation, or nations, run over by a world falling into the grasp of globalization. While quick and cheap is practically a mantra in this country, it is not so easy for those that have been left behind.
Meuninck, Vasilenko and Jaffee have visited sites of Fair Trade in Latin America as well. “People (at home) don’t understand what it’s like,” Vasilenko said, with a look of reflection in her eyes. “Where our money goes is really important to these people.”
October is Fair Trade Month, and Vasilenko suggested students, faculty and members of the community spread awareness about the true impact of Fair Trade. Meuninck agreed and said, “The students have a lot of power. They’re the ones that pushed Beaner’s and Sparty’s to be involved with (Fair Trade).”
She also expressed she could only imagine what would happen for the organization with a little more knowledge and spreading of awareness to other communities. So next time you need to warm up after a long hike on campus or a breezy Saturday football game, grab a cup of Fair Trade coffee. “If we can help even one person,” Vasilenko said, “(Fair Trade) is a success.”[coffee3]
Vasilenko’s on-campus group, Students for Fair Trade (a branch of United Students for Fair Trade) holds meetings every Thursday at 6 p.m. at Espresso Royale on Grand River Ave. to discuss how to integrate the community with Fair Trade. To learn more on Fair Trade, see their website at www.transfairusa.org.

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