Intelli on Fair Trade

by on June 20, 2006

Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia Coffee wrote a long e-mail lucidly explaining the shortcomings of Fair Trade and Intelli’s strong commitment to farmer relationships, posted at green LA girl. It’s excellent and insightful.

First, he defines sustainable coffee as being profitable to the farmer, enough to enable him to invest, not just subsist; and not damaging to the ecosystem, so the land is preserved for generations.  He goes on to describe

  • the many factors that go into the cost of producing quality coffee, and how the Fair Trade model does not have a mechanism for rewarding quality or taking into account the cost of living and other differentials that occur among farmers of different areas,
  • how much of the FT minimum price actually gets to the farmer, and how the FT minimum also often ends up being the maximum,
  • why Intelligentsia would rather spend ten cents a bag in the producing company, rather than spending it to put a FT sticker on their coffee bags,
  • the depth of Intelli’s relationships with their coffee producers, which dramatically highlights the importance of purchasing coffee from roasters with these types of relationships,
  • and how the FT model is beneficial to and works best with commercial and entry-level specialty coffee.

Many thanks to Geoff for writing and to Siel for posting this.  It really helps consumers (and me!) to understand sustainability issues and make, um, intelligent decisions about the best coffees to drink to support farmers and the environment.  Go give it a read.


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Revised on November 12, 2012

Posted in Fair and Direct Trade

Goatherd June 22, 2006 at 12:55 am

I strongly agree with Geoff's assesment of the fair trade situation. I think the most important idea he discussed was the notion that 'Fair Trade Certified' coffee serves as a stepping stone to something better. The HIGHEST quality sustainable coffee that has (as Geoff calls it) intrinsic value.

BirdBarista June 22, 2006 at 6:29 am

I wrote to Geoff and hope he can one day find the time to give his thoughts on shade certification, as well.

frelkins June 26, 2006 at 11:18 am

geoff is, as always, on the money. my core concern with fair-trade — as a long-time FT supporter — has always been the producer fee, the lack of transparency, the size of the fees deducted by the co-ops, and fear that farmers are paid slowly.

the producer fee has never made sense to me — FT is essentially a charitable price support situation. and i cannot think of another charity that charges its beneficiaries before it will help them.

i understand that siel and many other FT people are well-meaning, but frankly until they have a greater understanding of how the coffee trade works and how FT procedures impact that, they cannot quite grasp those areas where FT as currently implemented falls a little short and may actually penalize those they are meant to help.

geoff's letter was an important first step in explaining this, and i applaud him.

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