Mother Fair Trade
July 29, 2014 9:27 AM   Subscribe

Drinking a mug of fair trade coffee? Give thanks to the memory of Edna Ruth Byler, mother of the fair trade movement in the U.S.

In 1946, Byler traveled to Puerto Rico as part of a mission run by the Mennonite Central Committee. There she visited a sewing class for women living in poverty. She bought their needlework, brought it home to Pennsylvania, and began what would become a decades-long campaign:
Byler believed that she could provide sustainable economic opportunities for artisans in developing countries by creating a viable marketplace for their products in North America. She began a grassroots campaign among her family and friends in the United States by selling handcrafted products out of the trunk of her car. Byler made a concerted effort to educate her community about the lives of artisans around the world.

For the next 30 years, Byler worked tirelessly to connect individual entrepreneurs in developing countries with market opportunities in North America.

Byler's project grew into Ten Thousand Villages, whose stores promote both artisans' crafts and the ideal of fair trade. So raise your coffee mug in salute to the woman whose vision has evolved to encompass the world. Have one of Byler's Potato Dough Cinnamon Rolls to go with your java!
posted by MonkeyToes (8 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
In professional coffee circles, it has been suspected for a very long time that Fair Trade certification doesn't actually do much to lift small farmholders out of poverty, and a recent study points to the legitimacy of that suspicion, (Full .pdf of study)

The biggest criticism is that the money rarely makes it down to the actual people that are hand picking the coffee; the migrant workers don't really end up seeing much of that cash. The money is supposed to go back to the communities that earn the money, but that cash rarely sees its way to the pickers, it usually goes to the farmers (read; land owners).

The biggest problem I personally have with the Fair Trade label is that only formal, licensed cooperatives can be certified. If you don't join a cooperative, you don't get Fair Trade status, which is really frustrating. I've met some small producers from Columbia who are really lucky their coffees were 'discovered,' as it were, by coffee roasteries who saw the value in it, and decided to pay the farmers for their quality, and then the farmers had to hire better workers and pay them accordingly.

Counter Culture Coffee* has a really interesting incentive program for coffee farmers in the way they write their purchase contracts in advance; if a farmer (again, read: land owner) meets certain benchmarks not in terms of quality, but in terms of practices (wage benchmarks for pickers and other farm workers, use of certain fertilizers, certain pruning techniques, selective harvest as opposed to strip picking, hand sorting, etc) they company pays them more for the coffee. They've found that most of the time, the quality follows those benchmarks the coffee is better, Counter Culture can sell it for more, and continue the cycle.

*I work for a coffee roastery, but not Counter Culture, I just have mad respect for how they do.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:53 AM on July 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

furnace.heart you forget to mention that fair trade is no guarantee- not even the remotest thing close to a guarantee- of GOOD COFFEE. DIRECT trade means that there is a relationship between the roaster/importer and the grower who may or may not be part of a cooperative. Direct trade means not only is the producer being paid well but that the coffee geniuses behind roasters like Phil & Sebastian or Fratello or whatever your city is blessed with (mine is Calgary) have gone to origin, met the farmers, sampled the product, and are going to give me a world-class cuppa.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:16 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

MonkeyToes, thanks for posting - yet another tireless woman with a great idea.

And I love that the recipe you linked sounds like the Moravian sugar cake I used to have at Christmastime. Very Pennsylvania.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 10:34 AM on July 29, 2014

Direct trade means not only is the producer being paid well but that the coffee geniuses behind roasters like Phil & Sebastian or Fratello […] have gone to origin, met the farmers, sampled the product, and are going to give me a world-class cuppa.

Unfortunately, Direct Trade means no such thing, necessarily. The one thing that Fair Trade has going for it is that it's a 3rd party certification system; Direct Trade has no such formal system in place, so there's no accountability at all. The roastery I work for has several "direct trade" coffees as it were, and we don't label them any differently because the term is almost meaningless as this point; there are lots of coffee roasters out there (all of whom I'm not comfortable calling out on a public web forum) who fudge their "direct trade" labels. We do our due-diligence and make sure all of our coffees are on the up and up the best we can, and we're small enough that our customers know that and respect it.

Unfortunately it is very easy to go to Central America and visit some of the lowest of the low quality farms and buy coffee direct from a farm who pays their workers borderline slave wages, for very little money. It's also very easy, and there's no regulation in place to prevent this (unlike the FT model), to just purchase coffee of unknown provenance from an importer and just label is direct trade. There's no legal or extralegal foundation to prevent this from happening. It does happen.

And speaking of importers, they oftentimes do a better job at interfacing with farms than roasters do directly! Atlas Coffee Importers up in seattle has some AMAZING social programs to benefit indigenous peoples who are growing coffee. No certifications attached. No Direct Trade labels. Just honest, quality business with a philanthropic bent.

My point is, I guess, is that there's a lot of good being done out there in the world of coffee, outside of the framework of Fair Trade, and the Fair Trade label doesn't necessarily carry the weight that people put on it. It is akin to going to a fast food joint and feeling good about supporting the workers there, because their making minimum wage. It's a start, but it might not be sufficient.
posted by furnace.heart at 10:53 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Fair Trade, the label, may not mean much now, but these newer fairer-than-fairtrade are building on more than 50 years of precedent from Byler and others. It's utterly mainstream (Kraft/Mondelez/Cadbury are the biggest buyer of fair trade cocoa), so it's not surprising that others are travelling further down those roads.
posted by scruss at 11:07 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Glad to see people improving on what Byler started, but there's a shade of scorn in the comments here that's bothering me.

I'm only 50, but I can tell you that no-one where I grew up in the 70s (Southern California) gave even the slimmest of fucks how their purchasing decisions affected producers, much less those in other countries. We should honor Byler for breaking the ground that we all get to build on.

(And also to add, while the big name obit threads are fine by me, I really like ones like this, telling me about someone I never heard of before.)
posted by benito.strauss at 11:16 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

scruss, benito.strauss I totally agree, it's important to understand and celebrate the work that pioneers like Byler did in helping to create the awareness of source and sustainability that more second and third wave sustainability movements/marketing concepts like "direct trade" in coffee build upon.

furnace.heart is right though that fair trade has serious shortcomings in coffee, and probably in other industries as well. As a certification, it was designed to address some of the shortcomings of the mass commodity market, which the linked study shows it's not even great at, and yes, it has no specifications about quality. This means that's it's not a good fit for addressing more quality focused, much smaller markets like those of "direct trade" coffee, and unfortunately that misfit combined with people's unclear understanding of fair trade as a certification versus a vague marketing allegiance leads to a lot of confusion.
posted by MetropolisOfMentalLife at 4:44 PM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

furnace.heart, I wasn't saying the directly traded coffee was guaranteed to be good, only that the best coffees are directly traded.

Direct trade isn't a certification and I don't see it on labels the way rainforest certified is for example. But I know my roasters - PERSONALLY - and I know that they go to origin, post pics and vids of the farms, name the farmers, bring back fabulous product. If they're crooks in Portland, that's too bad for Portland.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 7:33 PM on July 30, 2014

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