Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Two (or more) Certs in One


I recently had the opportunity to participate in an interdisciplinary panel discussion on teaching about fair trade at the annual meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society. It was a great chance to think not only about how to talk about fair trade with students, but also to have a critical conversation about recent changes in the movement and related branding with professors of sociology, business, and economics who had been directly involved in a variety of ways. A few weeks earlier, I had the opportunity to meet Barbara Fiorito, who has been involved in fair trade since it first became organized within the United States, and to discuss with her some of the current anguish within the movement.

These discussions have sent me back to the literature on certifications, which sometimes cause a great deal of bewilderment. What kind of coffee should a person who cares about birds and farmers buy, for example? Because most social certifications have minimal (if any) environmental requirements and most environmental certifications have even fewer social requirements, some coffees will actually carry two or more certifications, at additional cost to the producer. ("Social" in this context means requirements related to treating the farm workers humanely.)

So what is a thoughtful consumer to do? In the long run, many of us agree, we need to act not only as consumers but also as citizens, working in the policy arena to ensure that we can safely assume people, land, water, and wildlife are being treated fairly.

Since certifications have now been in place for decades without such a situation coming to pass, however, we are probably going to have certifications with us for some while. Sellers of coffee will still bear most of the responsibility -- and cost -- for demonstrating their good faith and good practices.

That being the case, I recommend the summaries provided by Ethical Coffee as a very good starting point for understanding the goals, interests, and limitations of each of the major certification programs.

And although this post is far from a comprehensive list, I can point to a couple of Nicaragua-based studies that have attempted to evaluate the impact of certification regimes on other outcomes of interest to coffee buyers, such as quality and yield. One is a 2007 study by Philpot et al that is cited and summarized on the Coffee Habitat blog. The other is a 2010 study by Ruben et al that is cited and posted on the Rainforest Alliance web site.

As I continue to follow up with the colleagues with whom I discussed these matters last weekend, I expect to be adding resources to this particular post.

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