For the latest installments that hash and rehash the pros and cons of Fair Trade, we turn to yesterday’s Oakland Tribune and today’s International Herald Tribune.

The International Herald Tribune covered the big chains and the impact on some growers: ‘Fair trade’ certification yielding benefits for Brazilian coffee farmers – International Herald Tribune. Of particular note were comments from Geoff Watts, coffee buyer for Intelligentsia, who said that Fair Trade is best suited for commercial grade coffee rather than specialty coffee: “Fair trade markets itself as a specialty brand. However, the fair-trade model is far more suited to the commercial market, which is the Sam’s Clubs and the Wal-Marts and Kraft, Folgers and Nestlés of the world.”

Essentially, Mr. Watts — who last year famously broke Fair Trade ranks to pursue what Intelligentsia dubbed Direct Trade as a better alternative — is saying that Fair Trade makes sense if you’re buying indiscriminate, bulk quantities of lower-grade coffee. The kind of stuff they sell at Costco out of cans, buckets, or troughs.

Meanwhile, yesterday the Oakland Tribune published an article on Starbucks‘ questionable use of feel-good labeling and certifications on their specialty coffee: Inside Bay Area – The Coffee Empire. Starbucks’ Black Apron Exclusives (such as their $26-a-pound Ethiopian Sidamo) might espouse the image of charity mission when it comes to the environment and coffee growers, but in practice it’s arguably a lot different (just ask Ethiopian growers what they thought of Starbucks earlier this year).

For example, in the article the owner of an organic coffee company in Massachusetts was inspired to say, “They [Starbucks] put out cleverly crafted material that makes the consumer feel they are doing everything possible. But there is no institutional commitment. They do it to capture a market and shut up the activists.”

Meanwhile in the news from the Starbucks corporate press release machine: Starbucks Celebrates Fair Trade Month, Reinforcing Its Commitment to Supporting Coffee Farming Communities. That’ll be a double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato — non-guilt, please.

Ethopian growers sew 120-lb bags of coffee beans (courtesy the Oakland Tribune)

UPDATE: Feb. 11, 2008
The UK nature & environment news site, scenta, posted commentary today about a recent article in the Guardian Unlimited that raised many of the criticisms around Fair Trade and actions they are internally trying to take to address them: Could do better.

It still seems to come down to Fair Trade being an improvement when it involves massive bulk buyers of consumable coffee. But selective, niche cafés and roasters would do better for the growers, the planet, and their consumers to look elsewhere.