If you find your morning java fix at Starbucks expensive but justifiable because, you trust, at least your money will be ethically spent, think again. Sociologist Daniel Jaffee’s Brewing Justice: Fair Trade Coffee, Sustainability, and Survival explores the benefits, limits, advances, and contradictions of fair trade—and finds it wanting. Hopscotching among alternative coffee shops, rural Oaxaca, nonprofit offices, and corporate headquarters, Jaffee’s work of ‘multi-sited ethnography’ is impassioned, systematic, and profoundly researched.

Is fair trade a challenge to the capitalist system, or just a lucrative niche market with good image-enhancement potential? Is it a market breaker, reformer, or simply a market access mechanism?

And, in a question similar to the Big Organic vs. Beyond Organic discussion led by Michael Pollan, who will determine the future of fair trade? The idealistic founders of the once-alternative movement, the pragmatists willing to sacrifice certain standards for what they believe is a greater good, or powerful corporations for which, Jaffee notes sarcastically, “fairness is merely one flavor” in a carefully considered lineup of niche products?

So far, the corporations seem to be fiercely maintaining their hold on the upper hand, even though the ‘Big Five’ coffee corporations that control 69 percent of the world’s coffee buy less than 1 percent through fair trade channels. This figure mirrors the proportion of fair trade to regular coffee in the world market, and is shockingly low when one considers that coffee is the world’s most successful fair trade product.

Consider that farmers reached rock bottom during the coffee crisis of 2001, while Starbucks posted a 41-percent jump in first-quarter profits and Nestlé’s profits increased by 20 percent. Consider that between 1975 and 1993, despite the 18 percent drop in wholesale coffee prices, the retail price of coffee increased by 240 percent. Consider that according to Oxfam Canada, when one takes inflation into account, families are earning less for their beans than their ancestors did a hundred years ago.

Over two years of interviews, observation, surveys, and statistical analysis in rural Oaxaca—Jaffee is nothing if not thorough—he

finds that fair trade has made a tangible difference in producer livelihoods. Fair trade coffee farmers spent more on education and showed a greater proportion of beds per family member and cooking stoves, for example.

But their overall economic bottom line was only marginally better. Although production costs have increased, the price for fair trade coffee hasn’t changed in 10 years, and most farmers’ profits are redistributed in the form of wages they have to pay the laborers they hire to cope with the additional work involved in growing organic beans, or even certification expenses (incredibly, farmers have to pay for their own organic certification; one of Jaffee’s recommendations is to provide subsidies).

Fair trade farmers made about 10 percent more than conventional producers, but had to work so much harder for the privilege that Jaffee concludes, “[fair trade] does not currently provide a sufficiently compelling alternative for many households, let alone constitute a solution to rural poverty, economic crisis, or ecological degradation.” In other words, fair trade does deliver many social, economic, and environmental benefits to participants, but nonetheless still falls far short of pulling the majority out of poverty, its avowed goal.

This book would be painfully long and technical were its reflections not as carefully considered. It’s worth glossing over the more evidential chapters in order to arrive at Jaffee’s distillations and recommendations: Adjust the base price of fair trade coffee; revisit the allocation of benefits; reduce entry barriers to trade; subsidize organic certification for deserving producers; address the balance of power within the fair trade supply chain; and protect fair trade against the threat of dilution and co-optation with which it is constantly barraged.

This decidedly academic tome makes up in elbow grease for what it may lack in textual sexiness. Although it reads like a dissertation and is often weighed down, especially in the fieldwork chapters, by an overabundance of detail, the points Jaffee makes are salient enough to parse out. He’s at his best when wrestling with the thorny complexities of the subject, having spent enough time with the material to leave no question unturned.

As Jaffee points out, just because corporations are buying fair trade coffee does not make them ethical. “Fair trade need not entail comprehensive reform in business practices if a company only has to act ethically with regard to 3 percent of its supply,” he states.

“To give a fair trade mark to Nestlé,” Jaffee quotes an activist as saying, “makes an absolute mockery of what the public believes fair trade stands for.”

Like organics, fair trade has come a long way from its hippie beginnings, an evolution that has wrought both positives and negatives. It’s easy enough to quarrel about semantics and distribute blame and responsibility, but that’s side-stepping the real issue. Jaffee’s ultimate loyalties lie with the farmers. “People in your country need to understand how hard people work to make this coffee,” a Mexican fair-trade representative tells him. “They work too hard.”

That, ultimately, is what this book is about. We still have a long way to go, Jaffee concludes, until fair trade is really fair—until it becomes, as Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva called it, “a tool not only for creating wealth, but also for its distribution.”

Brewing Justice: Fair Trade Coffee, Sustainability, and Survival
By Daniel Jaffee
University of California Press
$55 Hardvover; $21.95 Paperback

Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in May 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007