FT vs. FT

In a September 8 Financial Times article, Hal Weitzman describes low labor and environmental standards on some Peruvian farms that sell coffee under the “Fairtrade” label, a certification requiring producers to meet certain minimum ethical standards such as paying laborers a reasonable wage. Fairtrade riposted with an indignant press release three days later. “Claims that non-certified coffee is being sold as Fairtrade are overstated. We are confident that Fairtrade certification is robust on this.”

For whatever reason, Weitzman writes, a “number of industry insiders” who supplied information for the article are not so confident and attest to fraud in the certification process. Fairtrade has asked the Financial Times to provide them with Weitzman’s evidence to that effect.

Not even 2 per cent of the coffee sold worldwide is certified under the Fairtrade label, the article notes, but it’s become well-known for its ubiquity in large food retailers anxious to display conscience. Starbucks and McDonald’s number among the carriers of certified coffee.

In the course of the investigation, the Financial Times visited five small Peruvian suppliers of Fairtrade coffee. Four of them were found to be paying their pickers under the minimum wage, which itself amounts to only $5 a day plus lodging. The FT additionally cited a Canadian NGO’s findings that up to a fifth of Fairtrade-certified coffee is illegally grown in protected rain forests.

The Fairtrade Labelling Organization contests this claim as well, noting that it strengthened its environmental standards just this year to “prohibit coffee planting in designated conservation areas.” New planting is not allowed unless it can be demonstrated to be “in harmony with the preservation of the forest, and only if no other arable land is available.”

Fairtrade has admitted that its labelling scheme cannot completely ensure that its standards are met, especially in light of the fact that “farmers who sell only a portion of their crop on Fairtrade terms will often struggle to earn the minimum wage themselves.” To punish these farmers, many of whom still pay pickers 25% more than they would otherwise earn, “helps no one,” insists Fairtrade, adding: “We have yet to see the conventional, uncertified market offer a better alternitive.”

Sources: Financial Times

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