Start talking about Fair Trade coffee to people in the coffee industry and you may be in for a heated discussion. Though this hot topic really started because of the cold war. Before 1989, the price of coffee was stable due to the International Coffee Agreement, but when the cold war ended, so did the agreement, thus the induced stability of coffee prices ended, and supply and demand kicked in. The Fair Trade label was then born in the Netherlands that same year under the brand name Max Havelaar, and then TransFair USA when the company came to the USA a decade later. So what exactly does TransFair USA do? Transfair's stated goal is to ensure that farmers get decent prices for their beans, and to let consumers know it. To accomplish this, Transfair USA audits the chain of coffee custody from producer to finished product, verifying that Fair Trade standards are always being met. Those "Fair Trade standards" are determined by the FairTrade Labeling Organization International (FLO), a group of about 20 member organizations, including Transfair USA, who help with the certification process.
For a coffee farm to receive Fair Trade certification, they have to totally align themselves with the vision of the FLO, and pay for the certification, and pay annually for recertification. To align themselves with the FLO vision the coffee farmers must follow pages upon pages of rules including rules such as not being "structurally dependant on hired labor" (so having just one laborer on payroll year-round makes a farm ineligible for certification). And the certification and recertification fees are quite expensive - thousands to tens of thousands of dollars, US dollars. Which, to many US-based businesses may not seem like a lot, but to a coffee farmer in a Third-World country that sort of money is often just out of the question. Therefore, unfortunately, those farms that are poorest, the ones that most need the market boost that Fair Trade certification brings, often cannot afford it.
Organic certification is a similar case. For example, many farms in Sumatra do not use pesticides, herbicides, or the like, (much because they can not afford them) and could technically meet Organic certification criteria. However, paying the fees involved in certification is also out of their reach financially. I feel that the main ideals behind Fair Trade and Organic are benevolent; but the current implementation is causing many poor farmers (and not poor farmers) to become poorer because they either cannot afford certification fees, don't totally align with the ideals of the certification authority, or would rather spend their money on improving their coffee and paying their laborers. While coffee farmers who can afford the certification and choose to get it, receive a market advantage caused by a consumer pull for the certified coffees. Many coffee brokers, roasters, and retailers get certified and sell certified coffee not because they believe it is the ethical thing to do, but because its what the consumers are often pulling for.
Certification is largely a marketing business, and a huge business at that. Muggswigz coffee & tea co. does happen carry some Fair Trade coffees, but they are not advertised as such because we feel it gives an unfair marketing advantage. But then again, how can we really say what's fair or unfair concerning an important issue deeply rooted in hundreds of different cultures across the world? I dunno, but I do know that whether you agree with the certifications or not, at least now maybe you know a little more. And knowing is half the battle.