Fairtrade is a product certification program that allows consumers to identify products that meet certain environmental, economic, and social standards. Of the twenty product groups covered by Fairtrade International standards, 40% of all Fairtrade-certified farmers in the world produce coffee. The certification is best known for its economic standards that require buyers to pay a minimum price and social premium to producers, and its requirement for farmers to belong to a democratic cooperative. Research on the actual environmental impacts of Fairtrade certification is lacking, despite the specific environmental standards of production built into the program. Existing literature focuses on the effects of cooperative membership on farmer practices to show Fairtrade’s impact. However, there are many non-Fairtrade cooperatives, so these studies do not accurately capture the impacts of certification alone.
In an article published in the Journal of Rural Studies, researchers at the University of British Columbia examined the effects of Fairtrade certification on agricultural practices in Rwanda, using semi-structured interviews and the analysis of survey data from 175 small coffee farmers. The surveys were administered to determine the farmers’ agricultural practices (e.g. use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, spray pumps, masks, grass, agroforestry, mulch and manure) as well as demographic information (e.g. gender, years farming, income, number of coffee trees, cow ownership, etc.). Each of the farmers belonged to one of three groups: Fairtrade certified cooperatives, non-certified cooperatives, and private coffee wash stations (CWS)—which are not cooperative-affiliated. The researchers compared the effects of cooperative membership and Fairtrade certification on farming practices using three regression models.
According to the results, Fairtrade’s environmental standards do not appear to have as strong of an effect on coffee farming practices as the existing literature predicts. Farming experience, education level, and cow ownership were strongly correlated with the use of facemasks when applying pesticides, rather than cooperative membership or Fairtrade certification. Fairtrade farmers were not found to wear facemasks more often or consistently despite Fairtrade’s requirement to do so. In addition, farmers in a cooperative organization were three times more likely to practice agroforestry and apply manure—two practices that Fairtrade promotes—than private farmers. However, when Fairtrade-certified cooperatives were compared to non-certified cooperatives, no significant difference was found between them.
The results of this study indicate that agricultural practices are often governed by contexts other than Fairtrade certification, and future studies are needed to better understand these contexts. There are several examples in the article that support this conclusion. First, nearly all coffee farmers surveyed reported the application of chemical pesticides and fertilizers regularly. Neither Fairtrade certification nor cooperative organization affects the way that farmers handle pesticides. Rather, the government of Rwanda heavily subsidizes chemical pesticides and fertilizers, so farmers have a strong incentive to use them. Second, most farmers use spray pumps—rather than previously hazardous method of mixing chemicals in buckets—regardless of association with cooperative organization or certification. The switch to spray pumps is more likely the result of the reputation of availability and improved efficiency that was shared by word of mouth, not certification standards. Third, not all farmers use facemasks when spraying pesticides. Those that have been farming longer are less likely to wear a facemask. The authors of this study speculate that those who farmed for many years without a mask before joining a Fairtrade cooperative don’t see the necessity and thus, opt not to use one. The requirement of one mask per farmers is also an impractical standard that imposes unrealistic production costs on smallholder producers. Given that the more educated a farmer is the less likely he is to use a facemask, there must be multiple channels of information that influence their decisions beyond Fairtrade certification that require further study.
The study did find some evidence that Fairtrade is linked with better practices. The research shows that Fairtrade certification increases the likelihood that farmers will practice agroforestry. Certification is negatively associated with planting grass—likely because there are more immediate benefits to trees from agroforestry rather than grass, and a farmer cannot effectively do both. Certification allows farmers access to knowledge of agroforestry methods. In the case of agroforestry, Fairtrade strongly contributes to improving agricultural practices. However, another positive practice that Fairtrade requires—applying mulch to the soil—is likely the result of the environmental contexts in Rwanda, not Fairtrade standards. Mulch is readily available along roads in Rwanda, so convenience rather than certification affects this practice. An understanding of the limits of Fairtrade influence is necessary to replicate theses successes in other certified cooperatives.
The results of the study show that the environmental impacts of certifications, such as Fairtrade, deserve closer analysis to confirm that standards are actually resulting in positive change. Effectiveness of shifting agricultural practices is not only dependent on certification standards, but on national and social contexts as well. Further research is needed to understand the different contexts that influence a coffee farmer’s practices as well as complete a more nuanced assessment of those practices.