Saturday, April 25, 2009

Fair Trade Coffee Can’t Market Itself

Fair Trade coffee and other products play an important role in the development of a worldwide sustainable marketplace, so it is important to promote the Fair Trade agenda to the general public of consumers, and not stop at higher-income, college-educated activists, social critics, and foodies. Although this is an excellent start, this is only a small portion of the entire coffee consumer market (as the Fair Trade coffee market is a fraction of the specialty coffee market which itself comprises only 8% of annual coffee production). Even if you reach 1000 people, according to surveys and actual buying trends, on average, 1 person may decide to buy Fair Trade coffee. In this light, only marketing to this niche group seems unrealistic and certainly ineffective in advancing the awareness agenda of Fair Trade coffee.

Instead, I agree with Nico Roozen (founder of the "'Max Havelaar'" coffee fair trade label who spends double what other European fair-trade coffee producers do on education and social marketing), who states

To effectively change society's norms regarding the need for sustainable goods in the marketplace, the Fair Trade message must extend to consumers and companies that as yet remain indifferent to concerns surrounding workers in other countries.


The first obstacle Fair Trade coffee has to overcome is ignorance. The American public at-large is unaware of the political, social, and economic issues surrounding coffee production. To some college students, the difference between a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee and a cup at the dining hall is merely price – they have to pay for Dunkin' Donuts, while dining hall coffee is "free". Many people don't realize some dining hall coffee is also Fair Trade. To others the only difference between a latte at Starbuck's and one from the Flavour Café is atmosphere – and the thought process between choosing which to purchase is equally as deep. The point is that some people are consuming or not consuming Fair Trade coffee and they don't even know it exists, or if they do know, they may not know why it exists, or if they know why it exists they may not know how their purchasing power affects anything. In this respect the person at the dining hall drinking Fair Trade coffee is the idiot savant of the sustainable market, advancing its initiatives through action only – they have no idea how or why. Access is nothing without education.

So as Roozen states, the Fair-Trade message must be brought to these consumers, consumers who may otherwise remain ignorant. A grass-roots campaign is a great start, but to honestly compete with non-fair-trade coffee, establish a market and gain market-share, Fair-Trade coffee is going to have to step up their game.

I understand that fair-trade coffee is supposed to be the opposite of several aspects of the middle-man populated, farmer-exploiting, non-fair-trade coffee production and sale. However, it doesn't have to be the opposite in every sense of the marketing process. Much the same way that the opposite of a small square isn't a large circle (I consider it to be a large square), fair-trade coffee doesn't need to avoid the marketing campaigns that allow non-fair-trade coffees to flourish in the market. In fact, fair-trade companies need to capitalize on these exact marketing techniques. And a combination of education and marketing.

Education to explain why fair-trade coffee is even necessary, what are the issues it is addressing and problems it hopes to overcome? And more importantly, why should I, the 20 or 30-something professional with the largest share of America's buying power, care? People need to be made to feel a kind of social responsibility. Perhaps through ad campaigns that explain in detail the farmer's cut of your $3.00 Grande coffee. Or the living conditions of the growers compared to the roasters and manufacturers. Once this appeal has been made, it is necessary to explain to the audience what they are paying for and who their extra money benefits – buyers need to feel not that they can make a difference, but that that they ARE making a difference.

In the case of Fair Trade coffee success in the Netherlands and Switzerland, it was concluded that organizations there had hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on marketing- thus allowing them to "reach a larger consumer base via the media" than their counterparts in the US. But the US doesn't necessarily need tons of money to begin a larger scale advertising campaign. To educate the public, Public Service Announcements, are effective. It is how the Truth Campaigns in Florida and the Reality Check campaign in New York began reaching out to its audiences to educate them about the manipulative marketing techniques Big Tobacco companies were using to target children and teenagers. They could expand their presence on college-campuses, as college-students make superb low-wage work horses when incited for a cause, tack on a little minimum wage supplement part-time and you got yourself a grass-roots campaigner. TransFair should seriously consider hiring a campus campaign coordinator, a student who could go into classrooms and give a 3-4 minute explanation of why fair-trade coffee is important and what people are doing to support it. The student could also make contacts with clubs and student organizations and present in their meetings. He or she would set up tables in highly visible areas, may hang intriguing posters and signs, hold informational meetings and events, give out free coffee samples, etc.: opportunities are endless. Though this may seem a bit much, I was a campus campaign coordinator for Teach for America last year, and did these exact things – applications for TFA increased 8 fold, not because of any special skills I had – just because I was there, present, on campus, sticking information in peoples' way, sparking interest and curiosity in something they may have never heard of otherwise.

So in conclusion I like to think Fair Trade coffee in America is out to a good start, but they can only expand. There are so many marketing areas that seem untouched, areas that may not require them to have a $700,000 marketing budget - maybe they aren't ready for commercials and large scale print and magazine ads on their own yet – that will probably require the help of businesses like Starbucks and Proctor & Gamble. But they are ready to ramp up their marketing routine to a grass-roots campaign – on steroids. I think they've already identified a portion of the market to target; they just need to target it more tenaciously.


Linton, et al. (2004)
Globalizations, Vol. 1, No. 2, 223–246.



  1. You make a strong argument - but it makes me wonder where the line is (if there is one) between advertising and grassroots campaigning. Should Fair Trade advocates try to reach people as "customers" or as "citizens" (or are those categories obsolete)?

    This also makes me wonder whether more might be accomplished by convincing large sellers of coffee (dining halls, Starbucks, etc) to switch over to 100% Fair Trade. That would take a lot of activist pressure, but if successful, it would probably result in much larger volumes of Fair Trade coffee being sold than if only individual consumers are targeted.

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