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Interview with Dr. Sara Elder


📷 Sara Elder

Journalist: Solene Delumeau



Solene: Welcome to SciSection. Today’s interview is with Dr. Sara Elder at the University of British Columbia. Thank you for being here! Could you introduce yourself, and what you do?


Sara: Currently I’m teaching at UBC, a course on how to do research on human and environmental issues. And I’m also a policy advisor for a Canadian think tank, the International Institute for Sustainable Development.


Solene: What led you to do some of your research on coffee specifically?


Sara: It started when I first did a field study in Kenya as an undergrad, and I realized when I saw things like pineapples growing, that I had no idea what went into their production- the food that we would regularly see at supermarkets in Canada. I ended up living and working in Rwanda after my undergrad, for the World Food Program. I heard about Starbucks buying coffee from Rwanda, and it was for sale back home in Canada, so I was curious what the impacts were for the coffee growers in Rwanda.


Solene: Could you briefly explain what the Fairtrade label means for the products we see in the supermarket?


Sara: Fairtrade as a label basically indicates that the product has met certain criteria in its production. They have social, environmental and economic criteria that they have to meet- for example, not using certain pesticides. What’s unique about Fairtrade is that the buyer, who’s also using the label, has to agree to pay a certain minimum price to the farmers growing the coffee.


Solene: You mentioned Starbucks, which is the largest coffee company- and I also heard that other chains like McDonald’s have been offering Fairtrade coffee for a while now. So what’s in it for them?


Sara: Definitely over the past 10 years now, global retail chains like Walmart, McDonalds, Starbucks, they’ve all accelerated their efforts to source and sell coffee that’s considered sustainable. It used to be that more ethical and environmental concerns were the intended drivers of Fairtrade coffee uptake among these big companies. But I would say now, they’re also taking on Fairtrade label coffee to help build their brand reputation, consumer trust, as well as enhance quality and profitability of their coffee sales. It is a process to gain access to consumers who are interested in coffee that is more ethical and meets certain environmental requirements, but it’s also a way to use this type of certification as a tool to achieve some of their traditional business goals. Profit risk reduction, quality control, and lower cost of switching between suppliers.


Solene: So do you think the mainstream adoption of Fairtrade is now mostly for the profit? But regardless of that, are there any real benefits for the coffee farmers?


Sara: I do think that there’s considerable potential for mainstream certification to contribute to sustainability. We know from the research that there’s evidence of higher returns to farmers, better access to credit, stronger farmer organizations for producers involved in Fairtrade certified coffee, and increased adoption of environmentally friendly coffee farming practices. So there definitely are some benefits. On the other hand, this type of standard- not only Fairtrade, others as well- can exclude the poorest and most marginalized producers, who are unable to meet strict production requirements. Because retailers purchase less Fairtrade coffee than is actually certified at the level of production, there is some risk that even though your production is certified as Fairtrade, you may not be able to sell it as such. So that can be an additional risk to farmers. But there are benefits, so I think it's increasingly important to have research to understand whether Fairtrade is benefiting or excluding more resource-poor smallholder farmers.


Solene: Does Fairtrade focus more on the social or environmental side of sustainability?


Sara: Fairtrade is one of the most comprehensive certification programs for coffee. It integrates social, economic and environmental concerns. I’ve mentioned already the guaranteed minimum price that producers receive for their coffee when they’re Fairtrade certified. If the market price is higher, then they receive the higher price- but there’s a guarantee that it won’t go below a certain price. So it provides some protection against volatile prices on the market. There also are environmental criteria, emphasizing for example water and waste management, preserving biodiversity and soil fertility. Another key aspect of Fairtrade is their social criteria to emphasize farmer cooperatives. Small coffee growers alone can’t be certified, they have to be part of a democratic organization with a participatory decision-making process. It upholds values of non-discrimination, including in terms of both women and men participating. So I think a lot of the value comes out of encouraging that type of group organization in order to be certified.


Solene: If you go to the supermarket, coffee is one of the easiest products to buy Fairtrade certified. Do you have any idea of how much global coffee production is Fairtrade?


Sara: Yes actually, at IISD we put out reports every year looking at the state of different certifications. We have one report that came out recently on coffee, and we found that there’s approximately 560 thousand metric tonnes of Fairtrade coffee produced every year, which is a lot. But as I mentioned, it’s not necessarily sold as such. That’s how much is certified at the production level, but there’s an imbalance, because the demand for Fairtrade doesn’t yet match the amount that’s produced, in excess. So it’s not all being sold as Fairtrade coffee.


Solene: Based on what you found in your research, are there any specific area(s) you think Fairtrade could improve in?


Sara: I think standard certified coffee like Fairtrade, is definitely helping propel the global coffee sector towards becoming one of the first commodities to reach a really high level of compliance with these different sustainability initiatives. But we need to still think about some of these risks that were mentioned, like price volatility, just low prices in general for coffee, and the over supply- especially considering that there’s more Fairtrade coffee produced than is actually sold as such. So I think part of it is trying to expand demand for Fairtrade coffee. I’m not sure if Fairtrade itself will be the organization that can do that alone, but by getting commitment from retailers and other coffee buyers, it might help to ensure that there’s a greater expansion of Fairtrade.


Solene: Do you have any tips for our listeners about how to responsibly choose our coffee? Can we just choose any coffee as long as it’s Fairtrade, or is there anything else we should look out for?


Sara: I think the benefit of choosing Fairtrade is that it’s one of the most comprehensive labels- but it doesn’t solve everything. All development issues are not going to be solved by Fairtrade labelling, but it is something practical that’s being done.

There’s also the opportunity to ask at your local coffee shop about the prices they are paying farmers, or what initiatives they are taking to work with farmers. I think the more directly a company works with farmers, the better. Some of the values that the Fairtrade label upholds may already be upheld by the company working directly with farmers. The benefit of the Fairtrade label is that it kind of substitutes for that relationship- when a consumer doesn’t actually know the farmer, it’s trying to provide some more information on the production side of things. It’s also valuable to think about the company you’re buying from, and whether they appear to integrate and uphold Fairtrade values into their business itself. That’s something that can be a point of tension in the Fairtrade movement. There’s labelling which allows mainstream companies to adopt and sell a portion of its coffee labelled as Fairtrade. But there are other coffee roasters that would uphold all the values of Fairtrade- not just as a label, but the entire concept of trading fairly- within their company. So you can also think about how their own employees are treated, on this side.


Solene: And finally, what is the most memorable thing that happened during your research?

Sara: Having the opportunity to spend time in Rwanda, and to learn from the coffee farmers about where the coffee we drink every day comes from. It was such a privilege to be able to learn from farmers themselves about their experience, and to understand that side of it, I really valued that. Just the other day I was in a coffee shop in Vancouver and saw coffee beans being sold from one of the cooperatives that I visited in Rwanda, and I got really excited to see them there. I think it’s that connection with producers on the other side of the world, and to have the opportunity to be there.


Solene: That brings us to the end of the interview. Thank you for joining us today! That’s it for this week of SciSection! To all our listeners, make sure to check out our podcast for the latest interviews.


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