One of coffee’s big stories of the past year has been the seemingly sudden discovery and public awareness of Fair Trade coffee. Twenty years after the founding of Equal Exchange, Fair Trade coffee awareness reached critical mass this year in the U.S., the U.K., and many other nations around the world.

This awareness began with a select group of activists who recognized the inequities that globalization was bringing about in the world. Then it was a number of coffee industry specialists. Then more social and environmental activists. And finally, in the past year or so, it has taken hold with more of the mainstream: socially and environmentally conscious consumers, bloggers, journalists, the coffee-obsessed dinner guest, etc. But to read newspapers and blogs in the past year, you’d think the only controversy surrounding Fair Trade was that there were still places that sold or used coffee that wasn’t certified Fair Trade.

The good news is that after years of public campaigns to help make people aware of the plight of coffee farmers who cannot make a living wage under the current systems, and the many ills of industrialized coffee farming, consumers are now responding en masse to the concepts of Fair Trade. Consumers are now asking questions about where their coffee comes from and how their decisions affect the people and land elsewhere in the world.

The bad news is that there are now millions of people entirely new to the concept of Fair Trade. Many of these newly initiated consumers have essentially afforded Fair Trade with monopoly on ethical and sustainable coffee farming practices — at least subconsciously. Some even go so far as to absurdly believe that to use, sell, or purchase coffee that isn’t certified Fair Trade is unquestionably immoral, irresponsible, and destructive.

The Fair Trade Mafia

Earlier this year, I recall a specific incident where Eton Tsuno, owner and head barista at SF’s (regrettably) now-defunct Café Organica, was cornered by coffee consumers who complained that only 80% of the coffees he used were certified Fair Trade. Here’s a coffee expert who knew a tremendous amount about the industry, quality coffee, and its various social and ethical implications. And yet he was being talked down to by boycotters, armed with a flimsy three-paragraph article on Fair Trade coffee, who essentially accused him of unethical practices over 20% of his coffee supplies. This was insane — and yet another example where a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

As with most problems with worldwide social, economic, and environmental implications, there aren’t simplistic solutions. Nor are there convenient black-or-white decisions. The reality is a lot more confusing for the average consumer. If you asked Frederick Engels how to address the huge, worldwide problem of worker exploitation in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, Communism sounded like a pretty good idea on paper. But you would probably get a wholly different story when asking someone who lived under Communist rule for how well it worked out in practice.

“Look for the Fair Trade label” seems like the most obvious, simplistic strategy for the consumer who can only scratch the surface of this issue — in a busy life full of dizzyingly complex ethical consumer decisions. However, Fair Trade has also hurt a number of other coffee producers who hold practices at least as ethical and sustainable (locking them out of access to certain markets, placing conform-or-perish ultimatums on some family farms, requiring thousands of dollars in certification fees, creating price ceilings for growers, not rewarding higher quality, etc.). Furthermore, Fair Trade itself is also rife with problems. For example, earlier this year, the London Financial Times reported on several problems with Fair Trade, including weak enforcement of certification, allowing farmers to plant in protected rainforests, and certifying growers who do not pay their employees a living wage.

Ethics beyond Fair Trade

Since Fair Trade’s origin, some professionals in the coffee industry have said that something is better than nothing, while others have long stated Fair Trade is worse than nothing at all. Perhaps one of the greatest statements on Fair Trade’s shortcomings came this year from Chicago’s Intelligentsia, one of America’s premiere specialty coffee roasters and home to the 2006 U.S. Barista Champion. Intelligentsia found enough problems and inconsistencies with Fair Trade that they opted to define and pursue their own alternative certification system, called Intelligensia Direct Trade™, and no longer do business with Fair Trade. Yes, it turns out that there are many alternatives to Fair Trade — just without a commonly recognized “brand” label.

All of this isn’t to scare off people from wanting to improve matters by patronizing Fair Trade. Fair Trade has done a number of great things that have improved things for coffee quality, coffee growers, and the environment. However, Fair Trade is not a cure-all, and it’s not without its controversy and shortcomings. The Fair Trade brownshirts may have the best of intentions, but that doesn’t mean that they will succeed at achieving them. Unfortunately, at least today, there are no ethical shortcuts to solve the global coffee problem — consumers still need to read all the facts and make their own decisions for themselves.

UPDATE: May 15, 2011
In the 4 1/2 years since we wrote this post, there’s fortunately been a lot more questioning and debate about who Fair Trade is truly helping and where it the program has failed, if not where it has outright backfired. Yesterday’s National Post (Canada) offers just one of many counter perspectives, this one particularly on the negative impact of Fair Trade on African coffee farmers: Fair-trade coffee fix.