I BET some of you are wondering what on earth I am talking about??!!

Let me clarify a little: what’s the difference between Starbucks fair trade and Equal Exchange fair trade? Aren’t they both fair trade??EELogoPrint

der Morgen beginnt mit Starbucks Coffee

Yes, they both are. I’m sure you are even more confused now. I want to address what I believe are the major differences between a large company’s version of fair trade versus a smaller more grass-roots based company’s version of fair trade.

Wow. There are a plethora of differences but because this is a blog and not my dissertation, I will address only some of the most immediate ones that strike me.

Most large companies that offer fair trade versions of their products like Walmart purchase their items from large plantation style farms. One reason this is contentious is because fair trade originated with the hopes of providing employment and sustainable alternatives for the poorest which tended to be small farmers who don’t have the volumes to sell to large companies, hence being squeezed out of the market.tea plantation

When large companies use fair trade products, yes—they are paying higher wages and at least not oppressing the farmers they once exploited. This is definitely great. However, they are still maintaining the hierarchical systems that oppress farmers. Since they support plantation farming, the farmers are not necessarily owners of the land. women in laos

In not owning the land, you are limited in your voice and hence your power and access to social mobility. Your purpose is limited and upward mobility is stagnant: you are and will always be a farmer, not an owner.

Additionally, there are also grave environmental impacts in plantation farming. Yes, fair trade certification has standards for environmental protection that even the plantations have to follow. However, think of the vast degree of damage that can be done to land–long term–when acres of land that are used for massive production…….think of how the nitrates are being drained from the soil. What becomes of this land, a decade or two later?

no nitrates in soil

We grassroots fair trade folk tend to criticize large company versions of fair trade because we think its just addressing the issue of unjust prices and probably one of the easier ways of joining the fair trade “trend.” It’s an easy way to capture the market…if you get what I mean. Rink Dickinson of Equal Exchange best describes it as “fair trade lite.” We do fair trade and large companies engage in “fair trade lite.”

Fair trade

Fair trade for small companies is something entirely different. Small grassroots oriented companies tend to work with small cooperatives and with producers in lower rungs of poverty. For example, as mentioned in a previous AP post, our knit apparel come from Northern Creations. We are their only source of employment and because they live in such rural areas, business is challenging. Not only can they not get certain materials easily but many times they don’t have the tools or the skills to do it. This means that we, the importer step in to provide the tools and skills so that the cooperative members are learning, gaining skills and increasing their earning potential. How many times do you think Walmart has visited their producers to teach them new skills and done capacity building with them?

I feel that small grassroots companies get involved in fair trade for different reasons. We don’t do it to capture a new market or to because it would be good for our image to be socially responsible. We do it because we realize that this movement can impact the success of our brothers and sisters abroad and if we can create an impetus for change—we should.

Unfortunately, nothing in life is that simple. What large companies do offer is larger scale impact in terms of proportion. For example, Starbuck’s total purchase of fair trade coffee is 6%, but this measly 6% creates a tremendous impact for millions of farmers. This behemoth’s 6% purchase also makes it the largest fair trade coffee purchaser in the world. The sad truth is that many small grassroots companies never grow to this level to be able to impact such a large number of farmers.

However, working for a small fair trade company, my bias is obvious. I think it’s hard sharing the market with larger companies because everything is harder for us small companies. We don’t have millions of dollars in marketing budgets to educate our consumers on our products, nor do we have the brand recognition, nor entirely vertical infrastructure that minimizes cost for the customer. Since we are small, we tend to also not have the networks and executives alliances that provide us elite access.

So, as you can see, there are no easy answers–just different perspectives.


I reflect on this conundrum frequently. What is better: small scale change with less proportional impact or large scale impact so more people earn a higher wage despite minimal system change? In other words, quality of life for a few or little change for many??  I don’t know. I suspect both are needed to create the paradigm change we seek.

However, if you are like myself and tend to lean for the little guy: the small grass roots fair trade companies–then you should come check out our


Fair Trade Boston event. The small grass-roots fair trade companies were it’s inspiration and the majority of the vendors are small local fair trade businesss, working hard to do their part in justice.