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Fair Trade USA’s recent decision to allow corporate coffee exporters to become certified under their brand has caused an uproar in the fair trade community.

Why?

This move towards encouraging corporate interests is considered a “stab in the back” to many smaller importers and roasters, an abandonment of the principles that make the certifying body valid.

But there are two sides to every story…

In the end of the day, Fair Trade USA is a business, and like every business – it has to consider its bottom line, in addition to its principles and morals. By allowing the likes of Starbucks and Green Mountain Coffee to become certified, Fair Trade USA made a whole lot of profit. Just as any other for-profit social enterprise, Fair Trade USA can use these profits to further create social change by using the economy to fund “good” coffee plantations?

While large-holder-produced, non-organically certified coffee does do more damage to the environment, the organic certification doesn’t necessarily mean an importer is environmentally and socially responsible. Many smaller plantations actually do very little to be socially and environmentally conscious, and many of certifications do not outline what practices they require for a farmer to become certified. At the end of the day, the consumer doesn’t know what he or she is paying a premium for. How do we know what kind of standards are being set and what really differes a smaller “organic” plantation from a larger “less organic” one? As I found in one article:

“If we, as buyers, are not informed about what exactly this certification entails, then we are in no position to pooh-pooh Fair Trade USA for taking on a bigger client. If you really feel a social responsibility to your products, find out your coffee’s certification criteria. Then you can proudly buy a coffee that endorses women small-business owners or uses profits to send rural children to school, or whatever it may be. But don’t get hung up on whether Starbucks is a member of the team.”

So how do we fix this issue? Should fair trade certifiers be clearer and more rigid with their standards? Should corporations be allowed to join the fair trade movement? How do we really know who is making the best impact?

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