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October 14, 2010

Fair Trade's Narrative

By Phillip Barron

Doesn't your coffee taste better when it is Fair Trade?


An Ecuadorian cloud forest is not so different from a temperate rain forest in North Carolina. To live in either means the chance to wake up each morning to beautifully thick swaths of life-carrying mist. To farm in either is to understand what makes mountain forests unique. The soil, the weather patterns in mountain climates, the effects of altitude on temperature all determine what crops can grow sustainably in a given region.

The slopes of North Carolina's Appalachians grow ornamental evergreens and fruit trees. The slopes of Ecuador's Andes grow ornamental ferns and coffee. Really, these alpine farmers' lives are not so different. Yet without some connection, one may never know anything about the other.

It is the power of narrative that brings these two lives together. But where a writer's narrative brings them together in word only, Fair Trade's narrative materially connects people on opposite ends of the world.

The industrial agricultural model distances the consumer from the producer. Grocery store shoppers won't know the plight of coffee farmers in Latin America as long as we coffee drinkers buy from big-corporate coffee conglomerates. That's because big-corporate coffee collects its beans indiscriminately from fazendas throughout the world; the farmer does not matter as an individual, but only as a lowest-possible-cost cog in the machinery of supply.

The Fair Trade standard, on the other hand, certifies that coffee's production is both economically sustainable and morally responsible. By establishing livable standards for coffee workers, Fair Trade rehumanizes food growth and distribution. It renders an otherwise opaque process transparent and empowers coffee farmers by offering a business model alternative to the exploitative corporate juggernauts.

By reshaping the coffee industry, Fair Trade rewrites coffee's story from dirt to cup. The Fair Trade certification guarantees workers fair wages for labor, safe work environments, health care, and participation in a democratic co-operative. Fair Trade advertises its product by announcing the humane conditions its seal requires. It lets consumers know that they will not be party to human rights abuses, land grabs, and mistreatment of workers.

In this way, Fair Trade itself is a narrative. It is a mechanism for replacing the stories of abuse, corruption, and corporate exploitation surrounding coffee with stories of empowerment, self-determination, and respect. On these grounds, Fair Trade coffee is tackling poverty in Latin America.

One of the reasons that consumers are willing to pay more for Fair Trade products than big-corporate products is not just that single-origin coffee tastes better, but also that Fair Trade connects consumers' lives with farmers' lives. The traditional corporate model, shrouded in secrecy, diverts consumers' attention to either the low cost of the product or its universal availability. This diversion is strategic; it obscures the miserable working conditions of the laborers who are exposed to dangerous chemicals, denied health care, and denied access to education.

Fair Trade's power is in its explanation. By telling a coherent story, the world learns more about where coffee comes from, under what conditions (environmental and labor) the beans grow, and what the political lives of growers are like. Fair Trade companies are not afraid to remind consumers that people grow coffee. These people have hopes, families, and principles just like anyone else. The demand for Fair Trade coffee indicates, I think, that when consumers have more information, we make better decisions.

As a writer, I believe in the power of reason and dialogue to change the world. The Fair Trade movement, including but not limited to the economy of coffee, is an example of this power. Fair Trade makes sense. In many ways, Fair Trade is the common sense of global business: by paying farmers a fair price for products, consumers contribute to both a humane business model and a stable supply of goods.

In the wake of state sponsored violence in Quito, Ecuador or contentious elections in Venezuela, Fair Trade's success is newsworthy simply because it represents economic stability and political empowerment. Fair Trade tells the palatable story of another Latin America. This is a Latin America where the change we all hope for is happening. This is a Latin America where farmers are able to employ themselves -- to own their own land and care for it in a way that preserves the cultural history and ecological diversity of the region. This is a Latin American rising out of poverty.

Fair Trade takes those brave and necessary steps toward redistributing global wealth in a responsible, sustainable way by empowering farmers with small operations to compete in a global industry. And besides, doesn't your coffee taste better when you know that it has a part in moral and financial liberation?

Authors Website:

Authors Bio:
Trained in analytic philosophy, Phillip Barron is a writer and award-winning digital media artist living in Davis, CA. His work has appeared in The Herald Sun, Radical Philosophy Review, Urban Velo, art galleries in Durham, North Carolina and Minneapolis, Minnesota, as well as a few now-defunct literary rags, the demise of which had nothing to do with his publications. Promise.