Is Fair Trade Coffee Worth the Extra Cash?

What exactly is "fair trade" coffee, and is it worth it for American consumers to pay extra for a little peace of mind? Host Farai Chideya gets some answers from Nicole Chettero, a spokesperson for TransFair USA, an American fair-trade auditor.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And he was talking about fair trade for the coffee farmers of Ethiopia, but what exactly does fair trade mean? To answer those questions, we've got Nicole Chettero. She's at San Francisco member station KQED and a spokesperson for TransFair USA, one of a handful of U.S. companies with the power to decide which beans deserve a fair trade label and which don't. Welcome.

Ms. NICOLE CHETTERO (TransFair USA): Hi there.

CHIDEYA: Let's start simply. What exactly does fair trade mean?

Ms. CHETTERO: Well, fair trade basically throughout the Third World, as you know and as your guest was describing, there are many family farmers who followed generations of tradition to bring us food we enjoy everyday. Yet many of these farmers don't receive a fair price for their crops.

They lack the direct market access that they need to compete in the global marketplace, and often sell their premium crops below the cost of production to local middlemen. And when these farming communities suffer around the world, we also suffer in the form of hidden costs like forced immigration, inferior quality products and large-scale farming methods that often hurt the environment.

So what fair trade does is break down that cycle of poverty by guaranteeing small-scale family farmers around the developing world a fair price for their crops. And also crops…

CHIDEYA: Well, let's - that's a lot right there. Let me stop you…

Ms. CHETTERO: Yeah. Absolutely.

CHIDEYA: …so we break some of these down. I mean why in particular did you decide to create a niche or a business out of labeling things fair trade?

Ms. CHETTERO: Well, fair trade goes back many years. You would - in the opener you described us as a company. And we aren't a company, we're the only independent third party certifier of fair trade products in the U.S. We're a non-profit and we are members of an international fair trade certification system that stringently monitors both the farms and the businesses, making sure that our label only appears on products that are fair trade certified, that have come from fair trade communities.

Basically, fair trade began in the 1940s after World War II, when communities throughout Europe were trying to repair themselves. And churches came in and realized, hey, if we take your products directly from the farm gate and take out all the unnecessary middlemen, you benefit and consumers benefit by getting a high quality product.

And so that concept really took hold in the 1980s during the coffee crisis, where coffee prices at the international level were dipping below the cost of production, forcing many farmers to abandon their land.

And so what fair trade has done is connect the consumer with the origin of their food. It's allowed them through the labeling of their food to communicate their values to retailers and to businesses, and for the farmers to communicate the value of their production and what they need to survive.

CHIDEYA: There's all sorts of controversies over labeling. If something is labeled organic, does that mean that every ingredient was organic?

Ms. CHETTERO: Right.

CHIDEYA: I mean different states and even the federal government have gone back and forth over what labels mean. Does your form of labeling differ in criteria from other certifiers? How did you even become a certifier?

Ms. CHETTERO: Well, like I said, we're one of 20 members of the Fair Trade Labeling Organization International that's based in Bonn, Germany. It's the - sort of the umbrella that sets the standards and certifies the farms.

Each one of us follow the chain of custody of that product into our markets and oversee the use of the label. And the standards, they're, you know, quite complex. Anyone can go to our Web site on, you know, fairtradecertified.org and read all about them.

They are decided upon with the multi-stakeholder model. It's the producers, it's industry, it's non-profit NGOs all coming together and trying to determine what are the most important criteria. It's making sure that crops are grown as sustainably as possible. It's making sure that there are strict socio and economic criteria in place, making sure people get what they need in order to cover their costs and take care of their family. The needs of producers and farmers need to be met before the needs of industry and consumers.

CHIDEYA: In bigger cities and in some chains like Starbucks, you see fair trade on a whole bunch of labels and it's become something of a trendy marker. Is that a good thing or bad thing?

Ms. CHETTERO: Well, when you see our label - the fair trade certified label, which is, you now, a very distinct little black and white symbol of man with a couple of buckets - you can be guaranteed that any product that carries that label has gone through incredibly stringent auditing for, like I said, those socio, economic and environmental standards.

Presently, it only appears on coffee, tea, cocoa-based products like hot cocoa and chocolate, rice, sugar, vanilla and fresh tropical fruits such as mango, banana and pineapples. But I would say the notion of fair trade as a concept has obviously taken off. And many people fairly trade products from textiles to jewelry, to all sorts of body products.

And while there aren't international standards in place to certify for these products - we don't oversee that certification - we are delighted and excited to see the concept at a macro level of fair trade taking off at every level of society. And the great thing about certification is that it does keep people honest. It does make sure that the businesses are accountable and transparent about their business practices and they're not making a hollow claim.

CHIDEYA: Going away from the perspective of the businesses to the perspective of the consumer, if you had just a couple of seconds of someone's time, you know, like in a grocery store line, and that person was choosing between a fair trade product and something that wasn't, what would you say to convince them?

Ms. CHETTERO: Ask yourself what you need in your life to take care of your family, to take care of yourself and to take care of your community. And now imagine the needs of every person who has created the food in your aisle. And is it important for me at the end of the day to know that where I put my money is supporting the needs of people around the world, the same needs that I share in my own family.

CHIDEYA: Nicole Chettero, thank you very much.

Ms. CHETTERO: Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: Nicole Chettero is a spokesperson for TransFair USA, a leading certifier of fair trade coffee. She joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Coming up, unbrotherly love. Racial tensions divide white and black Masons in the South. And psychiatrists for babies? We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable next.

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