Sainsbury’s ditches FairTrade

FairTrade coffee in Sainsbury’s

UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s has caused a furore with its announcement at a meeting of African tea growers that it is pulling out of FairTrade. An on-line petition opposing the move, well meaning if misguided Members of Parliament led by Caroline Lucas challenging the decision. If nothing else, it has started a debate on the merits of FairTrade and superior alternatives.

A decade ago FairTrade was a useful big stick with which to beat Starbucks, Costa, Caffe Nero, to force them to pay more to coffee growers.

Coffee is a commodity traded on commodity markets, the price determined by speculators on those markets. If we smooth out the speculative spikes, coffee is the same price now where it was 30 years ago.

What this low price means is that where once coffee growers could afford to send their children to school, now they can barely afford to feed their family.

When FairTrade first appeared in supermarkets, the price was hiked, a useful marketing tool to persuade shoppers to pay more.

FairTrade coffee is commodity coffee. A small premium is added to the price paid, a huge bureaucratic structure adds costs. On a cup of coffee, an infinitesimal amount finds its way back to the grower.

FairTrade locks the grower into poverty, they are still supplying commodity coffee. The market has a glut of FairTrade commodity coffee.

FairTrade makes the buyer of a bag of FairTrade coffee in a supermarket feel good, they have done their bit for a fairer world.

Questions are asked when we look at certification on the ground. Lives of the poor are not being improved.

World Trade is skewed to extract wealth from poor countries to rich countries.

A BBC investigation, The Cost of a Cuppa, highlighted the appalling working and living conditions of workers on Indian tea plantations.

The Source highlighted working conditions on coffee plantations in Mexico. A year long investigation by The Weather Channel and Telemundo gathered evidence that child labour is commonplace during the coffee harvest in Chiapas, the poorest state in Mexico.

In both case, full certification.

The assumption is, the farms are regularly checked. The reality is the opposite.

Tea workers in Assam earn 115 rupees a day, just over £1 ($1.50), well below the minimum wage (177 rupees in Assam). This is legal, as part of their wage is paid for with housing, clean water, sanitation, food. There has been a small increase in wages since the programme was recorded.

The housing is not fit for human habitation, no safe drinking water, no toilets, cesspits overflowing, roofs leaking. Plantation owners in India are obliged by law to provide and maintain ‘adequate’ houses, and sanitary toilets for workers.

The women pick the tea leaves, hard work, but not hazardous. In the fields the workmen are spraying hazardous pesticides, no protective gear, wearing only t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. The chemical used deltamethrin, harmful possibly fatal if absorbed through the skin or inhaled. The local hospital sees 5–6 patients a week suffering from pesticide poisoning.

The plantations visited, Rainforest Alliance Certified. A marketing tool to sell tea to make middle class buyers of tea feel good.

In Chiapas, armies of kids walking down a road, 60–70 lb sacks of coffee strapped to their backs. Kids as young as six, if not younger, picking the coffee cherries. The coffee is mainly exported to the US, commodity coffee to large corporations, companies like Nestlé and tax-dodging Starbucks.

Nestlé when challenged denied all knowledge, they outsource the certification to a company called 4C, now Global Coffee Platform.

Veronica Perez, who at the time of the interview was a spokesperson for the 4C Association:

It would be absolutely impossible to imagine an audit where every single farmer who is selling his coffee through the cooperative gets inspected. It’s just not economically viable. It’s not possible.

Down on the farm, it is poverty driving these practices, that and the growers being paid a low price for their coffee.

The certification regimes are brands to make us feel good.

4C may inspect as few as 36 of 5,144 farms every three years, a little over half of a percent.

The square-root rule is used. This is fine for uniform widgets, test a small random sample. It does not work when certifying working conditions on remote inaccessible farms.

The square-root rule, inspection of only a fraction of the number of farms, less than half of the square-root, then only every three years.

What this means is that for 5,144 farms the reality of any farm being inspected is vanishingly small, a little over 0.5%.

The larger the number of farms to be inspected in an area, then if we apply the square-root rule, the number inspected as a percentage approaches zero.

Why buy coffee from a supermarket? It will be low quality coffee, long past its optimum, hence no mention of roast date, and best by is meaningless.

I checked this out in Asda and Sainsbury’s.

Both had shelves of branded coffee, rows of the undrinkable stuff.

Asda had one line that was FairTrade, the other was certified Rain Forest Alliance.

When asked, no, we have no plans to pull out of FairTrade and we stock very little.

Sainsbury’s had very little that was FairTrade, but they do stock Cafedirect which comes under the FairTrade logo.

Sansbury’s confirmed that they are pulling tea out of FairTrade, no decision yet on other FairTrade products.

In Waitrose will find a better selection of coffee, but even in Waitrose rarely will find the roast date. Union Hand-Roasted is one of the rare exceptions.

Certification may have been a useful stick with which to beat corporate coffee chains, an infinitesimal percentage of the expensive undrinkable cup of over-roasted commodity coffee may find its way back to the grower, but in essence it is a marketing tool to make us feel good.

If we want excellent coffee, we go to an indie coffee shop that takes a pride in the coffee they serve, sources quality beans. Quality beans commands a premium for the farm.

Therein lies the solution, partnership, traceability, transparency.

It is speciality coffee that is paying farmers a higher price, a higher price for quality, direct trade, long-term contracts, sustainable business models.

Colombian El Tambo roasted and served in Makushi

Every bean has a story to tell. This story can be on the bag, on a chalkboard, a qr code on the bag for more information.

When I have an excellent cappuccino in Makushi, the beans roasted in-house, they can tell me about the beans, where they are sourced from.

If you want fresh coffee, coffee that shows the roast date, buy from an indie coffee shop, or direct from the coffee roaster.

Support coffee growers, not through selling more coffee, which deflates world price for coffee, not through Fairtrade which adds a small premium to low quality commodity coffee, support by Direct Trade, improving the quality of the coffee grown by the farmer, who can then command a better price.

A coffee roaster such as Union Hand-Roasted Coffee works direct with the coffee farmers, helps them improve the quality of their coffee, and then guarantees to pay a higher price.

Yayu Forest in Ethiopia

Kew Gardens is mapping Yayu Forest in Ethiopia to establish the vulnerability to climate change and what measures can be taken to mitigate.

The importance of the forest, important as any forest, is not only the diversity of species, is that it contains wild Arabica coffee trees, a reservoir of genetic diversity for coffee.

One way to protect a forest is to give it value. It has value if the coffee farmers can receive a higher price for their coffee. The way to do so is by improving quality.

Union is working with the growers to improve the quality, care of the trees, picking of the reddest, ripest coffee cherries, supply of polypropylene netting on which to dry the beans, establishment of a cupping lab to enable the farmers to assess the quality of their beans.

Union want quality beans, for which they will pay a premium above the commodity price for beans.

Direct Trade not FairTrade.

If you want to support growers, drink quality coffee, why are you buying from a supermarket?

Little shops like Grocer and Grain, The Deli at 80, have quality coffee in stock, as does the slightly larger Infinity Foods.

Indie coffee shops that are brewing quality coffee, will often have coffee for sale, often they roast their own.

Failing that, there are many quality coffee roasters, Has Bean, Union, Square Mile, The Roasting Party, Karuna Coffee, to name but a few.

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