The Fairtrade Foundation isn’t the only fair trade show in town. In the past ten or so years, a proliferation of ethically enlightened labels have entered the market and come to rest on the packets of coffee on our supermarket shelves.
For the conscientious customer, navigating all these names and labels can be tricky. Do you know your UTZ from your WFTO? Your Rainforest Alliance versus Fairtrade? And what about the Whole Foods Whole Trade Guarantee – is ‘whole trade’ the same as ‘fair trade’?
In an increasingly crowded ethical coffee marketplace, there’s no longer a one-size-fits-all approach to assessing, trading and labelling coffee that has been traded in a consciously fair way. For ethically-minded customers, the trick is finding a growing and trading scheme that feels right, and then within that range, a coffee that tastes right.
No logo doesn’t necessarily mean no fair
There’s a persistent myth that since some coffees are clearly marked as being ethically grown and/or traded, those that don’t display the marking must come from some dark Satanic coffee mills. This is simply not the case.
There are plenty of ethical coffees out there that don’t fall into any of the fair trade or ethical labelling schemes. Farmers or co-operatives may not participate in labelling schemes for any number of reasons: they may not want to take part; they may not be big enough or have the required protocol in place to qualify; or they might meet some or even most of the required criteria but not quite all. By leaving these coffees on the shelf, you’re not doing the farmers any favours.
One of our favourite coffees, Ethiopia Amaro Gayo, doesn’t bear the mark of any ethical labelling scheme, but we challenge you to find a coffee with better ethical credentials. Ultimately, the only way to figure out if a coffee meets your ethical criteria is to do a little research, or rely on us to do it for you.
A guide to ethical and fair trade coffee labels
The organisation sets product-specific standards for small producer organisations, hired labour, contract production and trade. Democratic values are part of these principles: small producer organisations that qualify for Fairtrade membership must share profits equally and vote on all decisions. There’s also a list of banned materials, from asbestos to zinc phosphide. However, community development, while applauded by the Fairtrade Foundation, doesn’t seem to be part of the standards.
Want to know more about the Fairtrade Foundation? Take a look at the standards
UTZ Certified is an organisation dedicated to sustainability, community and environmental care. The organisation has product-specific (coffee, tea, cocoa) UTZ Codes of Conduct that set out standards for the way products are grown, process and transported. To achieve UTZ certification (‘utz kapeh’ means ‘good coffee’ in the Mayan language Quiché), producers must comply with the economic, social and environmental standards set out in the Codes of Conduct. UTZ works on a model of continuous improvement, so in order to hold onto certification, producers need to develop their farming methods, working conditions, environmental and social programmes from year to year.
Want to know more about UTZ Certified? Download the UTZ Codes of Conduct
WFTO is the World Fair Trade Organisation. Its logo, and the Fairtrade Foundation logo, are perhaps the best-recognised fair trade labels in the world. Membership in the WFTO is specifically limited to economically disadvantaged producers that meet the organisation’s 10 Principles of Fair Trade. It’s fair to say that the WFTO falls on the strict end of the fair trade spectrum: if you’ve got serious principles, this might be the label to look for.
The WFTO makes a distinction between fair trade and ethical trade. They say that in addition to following codes of conduct and meeting labour standards, “Fair Trade organisations specifically seek to work in partnership with marginalised and disadvantaged groups to try and help them overcome the serious barriers they face in finding markets. Therefore, while a Fair Trade businesses must be ethical, an ethical business is not necessarily Fair Trade.”
Want to know more about the WFTO? Read the WFTO’s 10 Principles of Fair Trade
The Rainforest Alliance is an environmental organisation dedicated to protecting forests. Its stated aim is “to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices and consumer behaviour”. Alleviating poverty is part of this, which puts it in line with the WFTO, but the Rainforest Alliance is fundamentally focused on environmental issues and growing food in a more sustainable, ethical way. It’s not about trade.
For coffee lovers who put the environment at the top of their list of charitable causes, coffee bearing the Rainforest Alliance logo might be the most ethical choice. Certified products have been grown, produced and brought to market in the most sustainable way possible – which is pretty powerful when you consider that coffee is grown in some of our planet’s most fragile places.
Want to know more about the Rainforest Alliance? Watch a video that shows how forestry, food and ethics come together
Whole Trade is Whole Foods Market’s in-house certification programme. Whole Trade is the new kid on the block and it isn’t as strict as the other fair systems on the list – in fact, it might best be described as fair trade lite.
Whole Foods bills Whole Trade as a part of a responsibility towards all stakeholders in its business: from producers to consumers, and of course, the planet. Whole Foods partners with Fair Trade USA, Rainforest Alliance, Fair for Life and Fairtrade to promote products that have been certified according to the four criteria required for the Whole Trade Guarantee: quality, premium price to the producer, better wages and working conditions, and the environment.
Alas, ‘whole trade’ seems to be a bit of marketing speak: there’s no agreed definition for it, and the label isn’t backed up by the kinds of standards and technical documents UTZ and WFTO provide. But with Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance as partners, Whole Trade is probably worth watching.
Want to know more about the Whole Foods Whole Trade Guarantee? Meet some of the producers
No one label fits all
In conclusion, there’s no single best labelling scheme, and it’s critical to remember that just because a product isn’t labelled, doesn’t mean it’s not ethically grown or traded. But knowing a little more about the different labels and the organisations behind them can give a person a little more confidence that the power behind their purchase is going to the right place. And for conscientious consumers – and for us, as a start-up company doing business with coffee growers, producers and traders – this sort of thing really matters.