New Internationalist 322 April 2000
So you want your fair-trade coffee, you want it tasty
and you want it now - but you can't find it anywhere.
Murray MacAdam examines the pitfalls of expanding
fair trade into the mainstream market.
Toronto’s Yonge-Eglinton area is a shopper’s dream. The upscale neighbourhood in Canada’s biggest city boasts fine Italian dining, cinemas and shops catering to every whim.
One stands out. Called Ten Thousand Villages, its shelves tantalize shoppers with Kisu stone carvings from Kenya, ornate rugs from Pakistan, exquisite hand-carved frames from India, while African rhythms bounce off the walls. All fairly traded, as an extension of the Mennonite Church’s overseas development work.
Big deal, you might think. But in Canada this store is a big deal. Until recently, most of the 30 Villages stores across the country were humble operations in small communities. Now there’s a shift to capitalize a blossoming market for fair-trade products. ‘We want to be in the middle of where there are lots of people with money to spend,’ says Doug Dirks, Canadian director of Ten Thousand Villages.
His chain is acknowledging that fair trade cuts both ways. Customers in Northern nations like Canada deserve decent treatment in return for buying fair-trade products.
‘We’re trying to get into higher-end locations,’ says Rosie Steinmann, manager of the Villages’ store in Waterloo, Ontario. ‘A lot of people will shop here because of the vision. But a lot of others just like the products. Either way, we want to do the most to benefit our producers.’
‘We are pursuing a fairly aggressive growth strategy in Canada and the US,’ says Doug Dirks. ‘There definitely are some risks,’ he adds with a nervous laugh. ‘It’s not easy. We’re struggling to make ends meet.’
So far the gamble seems to be paying off, with Villages’ retail sales totalling more than $6 million annually – up 75 per cent from three years ago.
Nonetheless, the Villages’ chain still strikes one as a hybrid between a church-linked charity effort and a regular business, in that many store workers are volunteers. ‘I’d agree we are straddling the line,’ Steinmann admits. Volunteers add enthusiasm and keep costs down, but recruiting and training them eats up a lot of her time.
‘While 60 to 80 per cent of Canadians say they would pay more for fairly traded products, the hard-nosed reality is that only 1- to 5-per-cent actually do,’ says Bob Thomson, managing director of Fair TradeMark Canada, which licenses Canadian fair-trade suppliers.
All too often consumers have had to go out of their way to find these products. Quality has also been a problem. In the 1980s many Canadians bought Nicaraguan coffee through Bridgehead Trading in solidarity with the Sandinista revolution. ‘It was sometimes pretty awful,’ recalls Thomson, former chair of Bridgehead’s board of directors. ‘You can’t keep selling bad coffee.’
Doug Dirks has been encouraged on trips to suppliers that they are keenly aware of the importance of quality. ‘Two questions always come up. When’s the next order? If there is no order, what do we need to do to improve the products? It’s a healthy dynamic.’
Three factors are critical to winning consumers over to fair trade, says Thomson: quality, availability and the assurance that products are not being falsely hyped as fairly traded when they’re not. Availability – the convenience of being able to pick up fair-trade products when doing one’s regular shopping – has been a stumbling block.
Canada’s co-op supermarkets have not been much more receptive to the fair-trade gospel than private super-market chains. Thomson approached one co-op store to stock fair-trade coffee, only to be told they wouldn’t take it because it would cost more.
Yet the tide seems to be turning. Fair TradeMark Canada now licenses 30 coffee suppliers across Canada – triple the number in 1998. Bob Thomson confidently predicts that it’s only a question of time before Canadians will be able to toss packets of fair-trade coffee into their baskets when buying their weekly groceries. In fact, in 1998 so many people pressured supermarkets to stock fair-trade coffee, as part of a Ten Days for Global Justice campaign, that the Coffee Association of Canada instructed store managers on how to respond to these nagging customers.
Rosie Steinmann is confident that fair trade has a future much bigger than a narrow niche market. She marvels at the enthusiasm of a Grade 6 school class to whom she spoke, where fair trade was highlighted as an alternative. ‘We’re raising a whole generation that’s going to be much more aware.’
As in Canada, fair-trade products are not exactly the first thing US consumers think of when they go shopping. Yet here too there are promising signs, including rapid growth in Ten Thousand Villages shops.
Years of effort by Equal Exchange – a worker-owned business selling fair-trade coffee – to educate Americans are reaping dividends. As they gather after services for coffee and fellowship, members of more than 1,300 Lutheran Church congregations do far more than just chat. They’re learning about development and fairly traded coffee, and raising money for small-scale farmers.
As word of the project spreads, other US churches and the Quakers are percolating their own economic-justice ventures with Equal Exchange, whose sales now top $6 million annually.
‘Our success is a sign that people are trying to find ways to understand better and grapple with the enormous and seemingly overwhelming changes taking place in the global economy,’ says Erbin Crowell, interfaith program co-ordinator for Equal Exchange. ‘They are looking for ways to be part of efforts that make a difference.’
is a Toronto writer and editor.