Fair Trade vs. Free Trade: Probe International Certifications

Coffee that is certified as “Fair Trade” or “Organic” helps some farmers – typically those who are relatively well off, can afford the certification fees, and are willing to change their traditional farming methods in order to qualify for certification. But for the great majority of the world’s coffee farmers, and especially those who have preserved their traditional methods, certification has been unaffordable and sometimes socially unsettling.

Farmers who cannot afford certification usually also cannot afford fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemical inputs. Their coffee is organic by default but because western consumers don’t know it, consumers don’t pay farmers the premium that organic crops otherwise command. In other situations, small farmers adapt their traditional farming methods by incorporating modest use of fertilizers or pesticides to improve or protect their crops, and thus the welfare of their families – farmers worldwide have always been known for their willingness to experiment.

Regardless of the farming practice, Western consumers would benefit from knowing the reasoning of farmers, and from respecting the decisions that they make. Likewise, small farmers would benefit from understanding the concerns of their Western consumers.

Probe International, a federally registered Canadian charity, wants to improve the global marketplace for coffee for both producers and consumers. We do this in three ways:

#1 We promote the genetic diversity that exists in the world’s coffee growing regions by providing a market for bean varieties that might otherwise disappear – in the past, coffee varieties have been lost as farmers were pressured to convert their local-grown variety to a commodity bean demanded by multinationals for mass-marketing.

#2 We promote these diverse beans by providing information-hungry Western consumers with a variety of certifications that encompass the universe of small farmers, to enable consumers to better understand the workings of the small coffee farmer marketplace.

#3 We provide a system, informed by our volunteers, that doesn’t levy certification fees on farmers and doesn’t require farmers to change their traditional practices. Our purpose is to enable small farmers to compete against the expensive certified coffee beans of larger coffee operations.

Under our certification classifications, we provide information that Western consumers of their beans want, such as whether coffee beans are considered “fair trade” (meaning they are produced by fair trade cooperatives), whether beans are deemed “organic” (generally meaning that small farmers have received an organic certification by an agency such as the USDA or by farmers and suppliers themselves), or whether beans are simply produced by small farmers operating in a free market.

Because our certification doesn’t raise the cost of coffee to Western consumers, and because Western consumers will often be pleased to know that our free trade certification is helping to preserve traditional practices, Probe International Certifications broaden the market for small-farmer coffees.

Probe International Certifications

Probe International Organic Certified: Coffee bearing this certification identifies coffees grown without chemical inputs. Generally this coffee has been audited by an international certification agency; sometimes the coffee has been produced by farmers outside the favored certification networks who have been producing uncertified organic coffee but without fetching the premium they deserve.

Probe International Free Trade Certified: This certification identifies niche coffees that have been bought through the atomized free market of small producers and small consumers. Free Trade Certified excludes mass-marketed commodity coffees provided by the major multinationals.

Probe International Fair Trade Certified: This certification accepts the standards of other fair trade organizations that operate at the wholesale level. We then certify the retail sale of these coffees. Because we provide this certification at no charge, the retailers can sell these beans to Western consumers without inflating the price.

Articles and publications critical of Fair Trade coffee

Fair-trade coffee producers often end up poorer

10 reasons Fair-Trade coffee doesn’t work

Fair prices for farmers simple idea comple reality

Boycott Burundi

Does fair trade coffee eliminate poverty?

What's in a label?

Fair Trade without the froth

Fair Trade: What price for good coffee?

Half a cheer for Fair Trade

Bitter brew

On Ghana's cocoa farms, Fairtrade is not yet working for women

Why are foodies turning their backs on Fairtrade?

What do we really know about the impact of Fair Trade?

The problem with Fair Trade coffee

The economics of Fair Trade

Ethical objections to Fairtrade

The paradox of Fair Trade

Articles and publications in favour of Fair Trade coffee

What Fairtrade does

Why you should buy fair trade coffee

Espresso is coming!

Worldwide Sustainable Coffee Fund

Oxfam launches fair trade coffee chain

The Ethical Trade Initiative

Annual Report of World Frade Trade Organization 2014

Coffee markets: New paradigms in global supply and demand

Vietnam and the world coffee crisis: Local coffee riots in a global context

Feeling pretty good about your choice to purchase 'Fair Trade' coffee? Don't.

The global coffee trade

2015 Report on Fair Trade

Profile of Denise Sutherland Fairtrade farmer

Fair Trade: How it started and why it's needed

Fair Trade: How it works and who it benefits 

An overview of fair trade and organic coffees

Scarcity and surfeit, conflict and coffee in Burundi

Technology and globalisation: Who gains when commodities are de-commodified?

Mugged: Poverty in your coffee cup

Challenges facing Fair Trade: Which way now?

Coffee markets in East Africa

Agricultural exports of developing countries: unlocking the potential

The 'Latte Revolution'? Winners and losers in the re-structuring of the global coffee marketing chain

Sustainable, organic and speciality coffee production, processing and marketing

The U.S organic market

Trouble brewing: The changing face of coffee production

Why now Is the time to start drinking Fair Trade coffee

Fair Trade : A cup at a time?

Brewing the right cup of coffee