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Monika Firl discussing Fair Trade with Vancouver Cooperative Radio

As Fair Trade coffee makes its way onto the shelves of giant corporations like Walmart, spokespersons such as Monika Firl of Cooperative Coffees, warn that Fair Trade coffee available in such mega-stores may not necessarily embody the original spirit of Fair Trade as "social movement". Read on (and listen!) to discover the inner-workings of the corporate world's adoption of Fair Trade.

Red Eye is a 3 hour radio program on Vancouver Cooperative Radio with live shows covering political, social and cultural issues. On June 19th, Monika Firl, Cooperative Coffee’s producer relations manager, was interviewed by Jane Williams about the challenges facing Fair Trade with the inclusion of big companies selling Fair Trade certified products.FT logo and starbxs

Fair Traders within the movement are becoming increasingly concerned that publicly owned corporations like Wal Mart or Starbucks are simply riding the wave of Fair Trade popularity in order to better market themselves to consumers. However in the end, the potential for negative impact on Fair Trade criteria is becoming increasingly evident.

When asked why she thinks these kinds of companies get involved in Fair Trade, Monika responded: “It is entirely predictable that large corporations react to Fair Trade; they don’t want to be perceived as unfair by their customers, nor do they want to lose any part of their market share. The problem is not necessarily that they are interested in getting involved – rather it is the uncontrolled way they are allowed to operate. ”fair trade photo 3

Monika explained that from a Cooperative Coffees perspective, the most important elements of Fair Trade is that it supports the efforts of cooperatives in producer countries to create local infrastructure and development and it establishes a direct relationship between producers and roasters. These combined factors allow cooperatives greater power in negotiating price and risk sharing and facilitates clarity about the quality requirements for their products, she said.

“The problem with big, publicly owned companies is that they often are looking for the easiest way to participate. For example, instead of dealing directly with farmer coops to help them overcome the challenges of international export, they employ a transnational importer in their market country to negotiate with a transnational exporter in the producer country to secure the product supply they need. But this is not in accordance with the Golden Rule of Fair Trade – of establishing a direct link between the people actually involved in the production process and a mutually beneficial trade relationship,” she said. “This model of purchasing also makes public verification of Fair Trade much more complicated - since many roasters (let alone the end consumers) can’t know the farmer from who their are buying their coffee.”

fair trade photo 4The purpose of Fair Trade is to humanize the whole act of trading by helping producers to improve their structures, quality and market understanding through direct relationships and resources. It’s not about trying to get the “best deal” (read the cheapest product); it’s about making trade a win-win relationship. Fair Trade is a moral claim based upon trust. And that is why transparency is a fundamental requirement of Fair Trade. The origin and the fairness of the product have to be verifiable in a way that goes beyond certification labels... all the way back to the farmer.

Jane asked if these big companies offering Fair Trade products, with their huge market potential, could give the possibility for more cooperatives to get involved in that kind of market. “That is the theory that brought these companies to the table,” Monika said. “But the reality seems to show that corporations are changing Fair Trade more quickly than Fair Trade has been able to change the way corporations think and act, and that’s what we find alarming”. 

Jane asked about how consumers can know if their coffee really comes from the traditional Fair Trade or if has been imported by an exporter working for a big company with uncertain practises. Monika answered that the first step is to look at the package of the products and ask the following questions: Do I know the roaster? Can I trace anything back? From which coop and region did the product come from? Who imported it? Are these names that I trust?fair trade photo

Monika also encourages consumers to be inquisitive.  Working in the world of Fair Trade business also means to reach out and give information to the consumers about the product they buy. If the local vendor cannot answer these basic questions, the transaction has already lost some of the “original spirit” of the Fair Trade Movement.

To hear the entire interview:

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