Has Fair Trade Lost its Way? Practice Anomalies in Timor Leste’s Coffee Industry

By Kerry Laughton.

Published by The Sustainability Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

As a microcosm of global capitalism’s flaws, the coffee industry has long provided a ready platform for exploration of North–South inequities that manifest in global commodity chains. Biased income distribution, labour exploitations and deficient industry governance have all played a role in undermining the livelihoods and conditions of Southern small coffee producers and their communities. Since the demise of the International Coffee Agreement in the late 1980s, the Fair Trade movement has carried the load of responsibility for civilising capitalist excesses in the coffee industry. The Fair Trade movement now boasts a variety of codified practices that are aimed at improving producer livelihoods through increased coffee prices and provision of complementary support services.

Nevertheless — and despite being upheld as the beacon for principled industry practice — the brilliance of Fair Trade is fading in the eyes of some observers. Its promise has been argued to be diminished by its status as a limited niche market solution, bound in prohibitive bureaucracy. Further, Fair Trade monitoring has been criticised as top–down and disconnected from producers. Certainly, Southern producer experiences are under–represented in the Fair Trade discourse. Yet, these experiences provide a key to understanding gaps between Fair Trade in theory and Fair Trade in practice. Drawing on field research involving interviews with Timor Leste coffee producers and Timor Leste–based Non–Government Organisations, this paper identifies three practice anomalies that challenge Fair Trade in Timor Leste’s coffee industry: lack of vertical integration, limited producer power in collective decision–making and contradictory environmental management. In accord with cautionary critics, the paper concludes that the free market reforming potentials of Fair Trade are not yet realised.

Keywords: Fair Trade, East Timor, Timor Leste, Coffee Industry, Coffee Producer Narratives, Political Economy

The International Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability, Volume 3, Issue 3, pp.123-134. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 706.347KB).

Kerry Laughton

PhD Student, School of Humanities, Communications and Social Sciences,Faculty of Arts, Monash University, Victoria, Australia

Kerry Laughton completed a Bachelor of Public Policy and Management (with Honours) from the University of Melbourne in 2000, and a Bachelor of Arts from Monash University in 2002. Kerry commenced research for a PhD at Monash University in 2004. Her dissertation analyses the extent to which fair and alternative trade approaches offer a solution to the free market inequities faced by Timor Leste’s coffee producers. Previously, Kerry worked as an applied social researcher for the Australian government, focusing on regional development.


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