U.S. schools push for campuswide fair-trade status

17 U.S. institutions have been recognized as a “Fair Trade Colleges”

Last fall Cabrini College (Pa.) became one of only 17 colleges and universities in the United States to be recognized as a “Fair Trade College.” (The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh was the first in 2008.)

Fair trade is a model in which producers are paid above market, “fair trade” prices provided they meet specific labor, environmental and production standards. While most people associate fair trade with coffee, a variety of other products including tea, rice, sugar, wine, chocolate, bananas, cotton, spices and grains also fall under the category.

“This is an extraordinary accomplishment that required extensive collaboration by many in our community over several years,” said Deb Takes, Cabrini’s interim president, in a release.

A college or university seeking to earn fair-trade status must commit to a series of steps aimed at making the model’s practices part of daily campus life. As designed by Fairtrade USA, those steps include:

  • Fair-trade products including food and cotton are made available for sale in all campus shops. Fair-trade foods are used in all dining facilities. The availability and use of fair-trade products throughout the institution increases yearly. The institution and student union commits to sourcing fair-trade cotton products in purchasing (staff uniforms, course wear and merchandise). 
  • Fair-trade products are served at all meetings and events hosted by the college and the student union. Fair-trade tea, coffee and sugar are standard, while other fair-trade products (e.g. biscuits, juice and fruit) are offered when possible. 
  • Campaigns are run to increase campus understanding and consumption of fair-trade products. Fair trade also should be integrated into subject teaching where appropriate. 
  • A fair trade steering group is established, with representatives from the student body, college staff and catering or procurement department. Student representation in the steering group is essential.

While the program may appeal to the ethical and social attitudes of college students, fair-trade products, especially coffee, have their share of critics. As reported last month in The Economist, “Buying fair-trade coffee is not really helping the very poor, new research suggests.” Researchers found that fair trade agricultural workers often earned lower incomes.

Colleen Haight, an associate professor of economics at San Jose State University, writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, notes that fair trade “has evolved from an economic and social justice movement to largely a marketing model for ethical consumerism.”

The Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International limits participation to certain types of growers, “specifically, small growers who do not rely on permanent hired labor and belong to democratically run cooperatives,” Haight wrote.

“This means that private estate farmers and multinational companies such as Kraft or NestlÁ© that grow their own coffee cannot be certified as fair-trade, even if they pay producers well, help create environmentally sustainable and organic products, and build schools and medical clinics for grower communities.”

Finally, product quality can be a problem. For example, a grower with two bags of coffee beans of different quality will sell the quality beans wherever the highest price can be obtained, while the lesser quality product is sold on the fair-trade market.


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