How to Become a Citizen Eater: A Trip Behind the Labels of Your Ethical Cup of Coffee

Labels like "fair trade" and "direct trade" indicate food is ethically sourced—but how do you know what they really mean, and whether they're effective?
Stumptown Coffee photo by Alex Garland

Jesse Hughey of Seattle's Stumptown Coffee. Photo by Alex Garland.

After descending into Stumptown Coffee’s Seattle roastery, where bags of beans from different countries wait for their turn in the WWII-era roasting machine, we gather for the daily cupping: a sampling, by smell and taste, of coffee from five different farms. Today’s cupping features beans from farms in Peru, Colombia, Guatemala, and Ethiopia.

The production roaster, Jesse Hughey, describes the roasting process in great detail, cheeks pink from the heat generated by the machine. Beans spin and tumble inside the roaster as they’re heated, turning from pale green to dark brown, before Jesse opens the hatch and they spill out onto a wide grate. A rotating metal arm sifts them around and around as they cool.

Confession time: I’m a born-and-raised Seattleite who doesn’t drink coffee. But my sister is a barista, and over time she’s become fascinated by how we in the United States get this much-loved beverage. She works for a local coffeehouse that just started using Stumptown Coffee, and as a result, the shop has raised its prices.

“Sometimes customers ask me why our beans have gotten more expensive,” she told me. “But I tell them that we want to be part of Stumptown’s mission to give fair prices to farmers and they’re like oh, OK.”

Stumptown is part of a cadre of coffee companies that source their beans through direct trade—purchasing goods directly from farmers around the world—and position themselves as an alternative to the long-standing fair trade movement. In light of recent controversies around fair trade certification, direct trade has become a popular ethical option for buyers in industries like coffee and cocoa, who argue that direct trade benefits farmers while cutting some of the costs of fair trade certification.

But since direct trade operates outside of formal organizations and processes, critics point out that it is exempted from third-party oversight. And with no outside organization facilitating exchange, whose voices hold business accountable?

Stumptown photo by Alex Garland

Photo by Alex Garland.

Citizen eaters

The movement for ethically sourced goods goes much deeper than simply buying certain brands. “It’s about getting people to see themselves not as conscious consumers but as citizen eaters,” says Colette Cosner, executive director of the Domestic Fair Trade Association.

The DFTA, a member-based organization first formed in 2005 and officially launched in 2007, has focused its work around creating a method for evaluating fair trade certification programs.

Fair trade as a concept has been around in some form since the 1940s. But fair trade as a movement really started gathering steam in 1997, when various national certification programs came together and formed Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, now called Fairtrade International. Certification happens at both ends of the supply chain, where both the companies selling the product and the farmers and craftspeople who create it are evaluated.

Controversy struck in 2011, when one U.S. certifier, now called Fair Trade USA, announced it was leaving the Fairtrade International coalition and altering its rules to make it easier for large plantations and corporations to use a fair trade label. Some considered this a significant shift from the original values of the fair trade movement.

Equal Exchange, a worker-owned cooperative specializing in fair trade coffee and goods, was a vocal opponent of Fair Trade USA’s split from the coalition, and especially the decision to include large plantations—which are often less likely to protect workers’ rights—in fair trade certification. For Equal Exchange, democratic workplaces and workers’ rights are an essential part of fair trade—not only within the company, where every employee is an owner, but on the farms it sources from.

“We look to partner virtually exclusively with organized groups of small-scale farmers,” Equal Exchange’s co-executive director Rob Everts wrote in an email. “Bottom line is there must be access to participation in key decisions affecting the farmers.”

One of the items Equal Exchange produces is chocolate. The silver wrapping is biodegradable, and the packaging unfolds to reveal information about the farms, sourcing, and philosophy of the organization. Unlike some fair trade chocolate on the market, Equal Exchange makes sure every ingredient is fair trade, including the sugar.

According to Everts, the company’s purpose in pursuing fair trade is to help enable social change in the countries from which it sources goods such as coffee, chocolate, and bananas. “To have any chance at all of accomplishing this—taking power away from the elites and shifting it into the hands of peasant farmers—requires farmers to organize themselves,” he said.

Critics of the fair trade certification process have noted that standards focus specifically on cooperative groups, which means the benefits don’t necessarily reach individual farmers and workers, and that the fees associated with certification can be steep. In addition, some say the guaranteed base prices farmers receive as a result of certification, while higher than the market average, are not enough.

After Fair Trade USA’s split from Fairtrade International, many have concerns that fair trade is in danger of being co-opted by corporations as a way to make a profit while appearing socially responsible. After the dust settled, Cosner said, “a lot more people moved to direct trade language because of consumer confusion.”

Stumptown photo by Alex Garland

Photo by Alex Garland.

No middlemen

In the Stumptown Coffee in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, the hardwood floors vibrate with the near-constant rumble of the machine roasting beans in the basement.

Founded in Portland, Oregon, in 1999, Stumptown has built its brand around its relationships with coffee producers: organization to organization, no middlemen.

“Certification systems are a fix, a Band-Aid.”

“Direct Trade is predicated on a few simple pillars: improving coffee quality, incentive based rewards to the farmer and transparency of the supply chain,” the company says on its website. To do this, Stumptown representatives visit each farm a few times per year throughout the growing and harvesting process, negotiating prices and discussing strategy along the way.

But one thing direct trade does not have is a certification process, which is important, Cosner notes, because the third-party auditing component helps ensure workers’ rights and fair prices are guaranteed. “Authentic, long-term relationships are at the core of fair trade,” she told me. “Certifications with integrity enforce and facilitate this.”

So is certification necessary?

“That’s a tough question,” Lindsay Naylor writes in an email. She’s visiting professor of geography at George Washington University and has examined the power dynamics behind fair trade certification as part of her research. Certification has helped raise awareness about issues in conventional and alternative trade, she told me. But, she added, “certification systems are a fix, a Band-Aid. They do not get at the root cause of hunger, landlessness or poverty.”

“Direct trade is a classic example of ... a ‘just trust us’ approach to trading relations ...”

Naylor sees certification as replicating power dynamics found in other forms of development, which usually involve outside entities in what academics and activists call the Global North enforcing their own standards on other groups or cultures in the Global South.

“As direct trade is practiced now, I think it steps outside of the entanglements of power between producers and consumers,” she writes, highlighting the work of the Community AgroEcology Network (CAN), which works on food and trade justice in Mexico and Central America.  That group’s approach, said Naylor, is “based on maintaining a relationship, not on imposing standards on producers to meet a particular ‘ethics of care’ that is desired by wealthy consumers.”

However, Daniel Jaffee, a sociologist who studies ethical trade, notes in his book, Brewing Justice, that unlike fair trade, which has a long-standing history of activism and nonprofit work outside of the market, direct trade is not connected with a larger movement for social justice. And that the absence of third-party auditing is problematic.

“While fair trade is based on the principle of independent, third-party certification grounded in detailed, uniform standards,” he writes, “direct trade is a classic example of first-party (or self-) certification—in other words, a ‘just trust us’ approach to trading relations and social development that varies from company to company.”

And while the companies involved in direct trade often highlight their ability to offer prices above the fair trade minimum, the same capability exists within fair trade certification systems.

Ultimately, says Naylor, “Making trade ethical will require a very deep look at what kind of economic system we want to participate in and will involve asking questions about appropriate food systems and about how we allocate and distribute land and resources.”

Seats at the table

“A farmworker's voice is just as strong and important as a CEO’s voice.”

“What sets us apart is our commitment to consensus.”

That's what Cosner sees as the defining feature of the Domestic Fair Trade Association: the organization’s dedication to equal input from everyone impacted by trade issues. Amid the confusion swirling around ethical trade options, the DFTA brings together voices from all points on the supply chain to assess the claims made by various domestic certifications. That way, the people operating and working on farms have direct say in deciding standards that work for them, too, instead of meeting standards decided by others.

In the DFTA, she says, “a farmworker’s voice is just as strong and important as a CEO's voice.”

Since its founding, the organization has established 16 principles for domestic fair trade through consensus, covering everything from labor rights to responsible certification to animal welfare. The principles draw on and expand those of international fair trade, and form a unifying basis for the DFTA’s work. From those principles, they have created an evaluation system for domestic fair trade certification that is based on criteria agreed on by all their members.

At least half of the representatives on both the 2013 criteria committee and the 2014 evaluation program steering group come from farmworker  groups. This focus is significant because, as Cosner says, “it’s not just a random, unbiased group coming in to do research—it’s the people most impacted by the system.”

The evaluations focus on domestic fair trade labels, but include the international organizations Fair Trade USA and Fair for Life, since those organizations have each initiated domestic certifications. Key to the evaluations criteria is each label’s attention to labor protections—a founding feature of the fair trade movement.

Everyone I spoke with noted that taking the time to ask questions and be informed is at the root of both fair trade and direct trade, and is part of creating ethical systems of goods and services. Doing the research can be daunting, but the DFTA’s evaluations offer people a chance to sort through the tangle of certification programs and learn what is behind the stamp or logo.

“People always want to know what label to buy,” Naylor says. “Knowing which one is ‘the best’ sets people at ease. I say be uncomfortable, find out about what is behind the label.”