I thought I knew all about fair trade. It didn’t seem like there was much to know. I thought it was about paying farmers a fair price for their produce. Which it is, of course. But I recently heard Wells Trenfield, Managing Director of Jasper Coffee, talk about the really significant aspect of fair trade, called the fair trade premium. I knew about this, too – it’s an extra fee, on top of the price for the coffee, that gets paid to the farmers collectively. According to the rules for fair trade certification, this premium must be spent on a community project that benefits everyone.
Ok, that’s nice. Intellectually I know that the premium gets spent on education, health care, or other community improvements. But then I heard Wells Trenfield detail some of the ways that fair trade premium has been spent out in the real world, and suddenly I realised that this is world changing, astounding stuff.
First of all, you need to understand that many of the farmers growing fair trade produce have incredibly small holdings – some less than a hectare. They may produce as little as 3 or 4 bags of coffee a year. And that’s it. That’s their income for the year. These farms are generally in isolated areas, and they sell their coffee to an agent who treks in specifically to buy it. The agent tells them prices are down this year, so he can’t give them much for their coffee – and what can they say? They have no other way to sell, so they take the low price and eke out their poverty stricken existence until the next year, hoping the price will be better for their next crop.
The first difference in fair trade is that, in order to be certified as fair trade, these farmers must organise into a cooperative. Suddenly, instead of selling 4 bags, there are hundreds of farmers in the cooperative, with hundreds, if not thousands of bags of coffee. Now they have bargaining power – game changing bargaining power. The cooperative must have a democratically elected governing committee, and they sell the coffee, distributing the proceeds among the farmers.
But here’s where it gets astounding. The farmers get their fair price, and the cooperative gets that amazing fair trade premium. Then, each year, the cooperative – the farmers themselves – decide what their community’s most serious problem is, and they use the fair trade premium to fix it. And then the next year, they do it again, fixing the next problem.
For one group of women in Peru (the producers of Jasper Coffee’s Cafe Feminino), their most serious problem was their cooking – which was done on campfires on the ground outside their homes. They had back problems from bending over, respiratory problems from always leaning over the fire breathing in the smoke, and no way around it. So their first fair trade premium went on research on how to fix that problem with the materials to hand. Now every household has an upright stove and an oven – inside, with a chimney. Built out of mud bricks, because mud was their only available material. No more smoke, no more bending. And that was one year’s premium. Every year more progress, and a new problem solved.
One cooperative in Papua New Guinea needed wash troughs for their coffee – washing the beans straight away means they are better quality and the cooperative can sell them for a higher price. But instead of simply buying wash troughs for everyone that would only last a year or two in the damp conditions, they bought a portable saw mill. They live in the forest, so they have plenty of wood. Using their saw mill they built wash troughs for everyone, as well as better building materials – so they now have roofs that don’t leak. Crucial in a very damp climate. And when the wash troughs rot, they can build new ones with their saw mill, so it’s a sustainable solution. Again, this was one year’s premium, but world changing for those farmers. Oh, and their coffee sells for a much better price now, too.
Every year these cooperatives pull themselves further out of poverty – step by step, with sustainable solutions that make a long term difference to their lives. And they get to choose their own direction, doing what is most important to them each year.
Today I went to a talk at World Vision that was quite literally stunning in its power (a whole new blog, or probably several, so stay tuned). But one of the key points that came out of that talk was that we can eradicate extreme poverty in our lifetimes. And by buying fair trade, and even better, telling your friends about fair trade, you can make that real.
Which means that Fair Trade empowers you to empower others.
It doesn’t get fairer than that!