The Search for Sustainable Markets: The Promise and Failures of Fair Trade

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Abstract

Fair trade promises to transform small-scale coffee farming by ensuring a fair price to producers, improving market access for small producers, and creating closer ties between producers and consumers. However, as the fair-trade market has grown from a small social movement to a substantial niche market, the relationships between producers and consumers have become less personal and the market more demanding of producers. By examining the experience of COOPABUENA, a coffee cooperative in southern Costa Rica, the ways in which these changes have discouraged producers can be seen. Here, fair trade has never become more than a small outlet for higher-priced coffee, whereas other alternate markets and institutions play the role of increasing small-producer incomes, helping to develop sustainable agricultural systems, and building links between Costa Rican producers and U.S. customers. For at least some producers, fair trade has failed to carry out its promise.

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