Next Time You Sip A Latte, Look Beyond The Feel-Good Choice

Just how fair is fair trade? Mass market retailers from Safeway to Starbucks now sell us coffee that is supposed to quench our thirst and appease our conscience, but there is more to fair trade than feel-good marketing and social justice.

Coffee has long been highly politicised. In 17th-century England, coffee became allied with the cause of free speech when Charles II shut down the coffee houses that he thought were brewing criticism of his government.

And in the eyes of modern activists, coffee is symbolic of the unfairness of international trade. Their story of coffee is of the developing world exploited by globalisation and wicked multinational corporations. And their solution is fair trade – marketing coffee under a brand that guarantees growers more bang for their beans, sustainable agricultural practices and so on.

But there is more to fair trade than meets the eye. It comes at a high price. The program carries a great deal of ideological baggage and fair trade certification is full of requirements that can limit economic development rather than encourage it. For example, to achieve certification, coffee producers are required to structure their organisations not as the small businesses that have been so successful in capitalist economies but as democratic worker co-operatives.

For fair trade advocates, the only way the developing world can compete in a global coffee market is by adopting the quasi-socialist communal structures that have constantly failed to compete in other industries.

Individual farms are unable to achieve certification by themselves – the fair trade organisation will only approve co-operatives that can contain hundreds of farms. This practice reduces entrepreneurship and competition between producers, eliminating the benefits of innovative farming techniques. And in some regions, the fair trade system encourages farmers to grow in less climatically favourable areas, depressing the quality of the coffee beans.

Nevertheless, the fair trade marketing machine is extraordinarily powerful, and the brand has revealed an eager base of socially aware consumers.

The politicisation of the coffee industry has happened in conjunction with another major change: the awakening of the Australian palate. Coffee, like many other foods and drinks, has benefited from an expansion of taste that has added, for instance, sushi and specialty cheeses to our diet. It’s worth remembering just how recently it was that mass market stores like Gloria Jean’s were seen as gourmet retailers pushing the radical idea that the flavour of our flat whites actually mattered outside niche cafes.

In the middle of this gourmet revolution, whether we buy fair trade or just good old free trade coffee is merely another one of the thousands of choices we face in our overloaded supermarket. And Australians are wealthy enough to spend extra on products we feel are more ethical.

Indeed, symbolism has become an important part of the way we dine. Similar campaigns against genetic modification and for organic and sustainable agriculture are just as much about image as reality – too often they are based on flimsy evidence and have negative consequences for producers and the environment.

The fair trade system is more than our preferences in the supermarket. At best, fair trade has an ambiguous effect on the economic wellbeing of coffee growers in the developing world; at worst, it may actually be holding them back.