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Fair and Sustainable Trade

How are NGOs and the private sector seeking to incorporate the progressive and justice-focused principles from Fair Trade into more mainstream commercial activities? How can this be done in ways that are environmentally sustainable, but also profitable?

CRS joined Sustainable Food Laboratory, World Wildlife Fund, and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters at an Earth Day event at Villanova University last week to discuss these questions.

Fair Trade is a highly successful business model that helps the poorest farmers and has been strongly supported by the Church over the past 30 years. CRS is a strong advocate of the Fair Trade approach and has a number of successful coffee projects in Latin America. However, although Fair Trade is growing, it still only represents 3-4% of the sales of coffee worldwide. Therefore businesses such as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR) are working with NGOs such as CRS to find ways of expanding the benefits of trading relationships for farmers. The aim is to provide long-term support to farming communities and help them build resilient production systems that are flexible enough to operate in dynamic, formal markets. This is a major challenge, and often companies "green wash," or make false claims about their environmental and social credentials.

To avoid this type of outcome CRS and GMCR, through a partnership with CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture), are undertaking a series of studies and projects (more information about the CUP project in Guatemala is available on CRS Global) to evaluate and respond to key issues such as food security and the effects of climate change on coffee production areas. CRS and GMCR also are looking at how to help farmers ensure coffee quality while increasing productivity. These projects are providing incentives for farmers to upgrade their production systems, and for companies to support better market and quality information systems. The hope of these investments is that farmers can produce more quality coffee using sustainable production systems, and buyers can build durable relationships with producers based on numeric evidence and demonstrated impact.

CRS is also working with the Sustainable Food Laboratory and agencies such as Rainforest Alliance. These organizations are generating flexible certification schemes that are attracting investment from major cocoa and coffee buyers, and it is hoped that this will improve the long term sustainability of basic production systems for smallholders. The reason for this increased interest in sustainability is that the private sector is realizing that their current business models are unlikely to succeed with current conventional approaches in the face of rapidly increasing population growth and climate change. As NGOs we know that we can influence marketing ideas, but will not change mainstream trading relationships unless we work alongside like-minded private companies, communities and governments and uplift proven principles of economic justice.

These players need to engage in new business models that will take us beyond fair trade.

Read more about current CRS Fair Trade initiatives in the United States at To learn about CRS country-specific coffee projects, visit

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