SFU’s fair trade story is one of persistence and ongoing battles

Offering fair trade products to students has been a long, drawn-out battle which has in large part unfolded away from the public eye and behind closed doors.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia, "Coffee beans"

By: Alexander Kenny, Peak Associate 

Regarding the purpose of fair trade practices, Fairtrade Canada says that “Fair trade is about better prices, decent working conditions and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers.” A note on terminology: Fairtrade is the organization, while fair trade is the practice.

According to Fairtrade, their organization creates co-operatives of farmers: giving farmers greater knowledge about their product and its true market value, a guaranteed minimum amount of the profits from their product, voting rights and decision-making power in regards to their product within their co-op, and access to credit. Overall, they help farmers be better treated on the market, and those farmers can then improve their practices and the conditions of their families and communities. Fairtrade also promotes sustainability and environmental practices as an important part of its mandate.

That being said, Fairtrade is not without its critics. According to an article published in The Independent, Fairtrade has been accused of exaggerating its claims to success, that no clear evidence has shown that Fairtrade profits help social projects within communities, and that the organization excludes poorer farmers who can’t afford the certification, remote farmers, or farmers who harvest “unusual” products.

SFU’s chief commercial services officer, ancillary services, Mark McLaughlin, touted SFU’s story of fair trade for its student beginning. When he sat down with The Peak, he recalled that it began about 15 years ago with a handful of passionate students. Believing that SFU should take an active role in fair trade initiatives, they lobbied President Andrew Petter to be a hero for social justice initiatives. They actually cornered him and dressed him up in a superhero cape for their “social justice league.”

The Fairtrade movement fit well with the university’s values of justice, equality, equity, and international engagement. Then came the Ethical Procurement Policy in 2005, which ensures that the clothing sold by the university is produced ethically, not in sweatshops. McLaughlin says, “It’s important that we try to make a difference.”

Following the procurement policy, McLaughlin said that “. . . with Fairtrade Canada, there was a whole fair trade campus movement. UBC [was] the first Fairtrade-certified campus in Canada. We weren’t very far behind, because we had started the movement on campus.”

He went on to discuss how the university looked into sourcing coffee, tea, and chocolate from fair trade suppliers, outlining how much of the world’s chocolate is a product of child labour. Or, how coffee farmers are often not given their fair share of profits, due to the number of dealers, suppliers, and middlemen involved in the buying process.

SFU became Canada’s second designated fair trade campus in 2012, and McLaughlin reinforced the role that SFU plays in the Fairtrade movement across Canada as a model for the practices and methods of other campus. McLaughlin further stated that whenever the university opens a new coffee shop or even installs a vending machine, they must have Fairtrade coffee, tea, or other option.

Fairtrade Canada sets a long list of requirements for a university to be given the Fairtrade campus designation. For example:

  • A steering committee must be formed connecting administration to volunteers and ensuring continued engagement.
  • All coffee in university-controlled establishments or events, meetings, or conferences must fall under Fairtrade.
  • Wherever tea or chocolate is sold, Fairtrade alternatives must be available.

Note: This does not include establishments not controlled by the university, such as franchises like Starbucks, Tim Hortons . . .

  • Locations selling Fairtrade certified options must clearly advertise it and have information on Fairtrade available for customers.
  • The university must have a web page which identifies it as a Fairtrade campus
  • The university must host at least one event annually to celebrate its Fairtrade designation.

SFU uses the standards from Fairtrade Canada, but also works with the Canadian Fairtrade Network (CFTN).

For SFU, though, this has extended beyond the shops they control. McLaughlin said that years ago, when students demonstrated a desire for a Starbucks on campus, SFU decided that the university must first be able to offer a Fairtrade-certified coffee shop, which they had yet to do. He remembers the crossroad between students’ wishes and the new movement on campus, saying “the first coffee shop we open after we become a Fairtrade campus cannot be a non-Fairtrade coffee shop.”

“We went down to Seattle . . . it was a difficult meeting because they just didn’t have fair trade coffee. We went down a second time, kind of pressed them . . . ultimately, we worked with them.”

Starbucks understood that the Fairtrade project was important to SFU and its students, and began a Fairtrade pilot project with the university. They began offering a Fairtrade-certified espresso and Italian roast coffee at the West Mall Starbucks, which is also the first Starbucks in Canada to offer a Fairtrade-certified option.

A vast majority of coffee offered at the location, 98% according to McLaughlin, is Fairtrade, and they’ve done it without increasing prices by a penny, something that’s quite rare. McLaughlin was proud to point out that there are close to 40 fair trade Starbucks on Canadian campuses, the first of which was implemented at SFU. Further, SFU has been asked by American campuses how they approached Starbucks, because they want to do the same on their campuses.

“Sometimes you have to start local, but the acts of a few people can really have an impact — which to me is really amazing,” McLaughlin said.

The struggle with Tim Hortons, however, has been a much more difficult process. McLaughlin said that Tim Hortons has been beat up in the media recently, and he believes that it is in large part because they no longer align with the values of Canadian university students, who believe that the fair treatment of farmers should be important, and that they should get their fair share.   

“We’ve [SFU and other university campuses across Canada] been meeting with Tim’s for about five years now, pushing them, asking them to have at least one Fairtrade option, and we think that’s not too much to ask of a big company . . .” He said that Tim Hortons says that their coffee is ethical, but they set their own standards and make their own rulings. Laughlin considers it to be not nearly transparent enough. “It’s not good enough for a Canadian company,” he says.

Fairtrade, on the other hand, is the gold standard. He adds: “We’ve told Tim’s that if they don’t come around and don’t starting offering at least one Fairtrade product, they don’t deserve to be on our campus, because they should be doing better in this world. It’s not just about the bottom line, it’s not just about the shareholders, it’s about the good that you can do.”

In a meeting a year ago, McLaughlin said Tim Hortons wanted to convince SFU that their coffee is ethical, but they have not made an attempt to persuade the university since. McLaughlin says, “I guess we haven’t been a priority.” He cited other concerns that Tim’s has had with its public image, including issues with the minimum wage in Ontario.

McLaughlin acknowledged the opening of the new Cornerstone Tim’s. “We’d still love to see — and we think they should, if they want to remain relevant in Canada, on campuses — at least one cup of coffee that’s Fairtrade.” He later added that “for Tim’s to be relevant in Canada – on our campuses – they need to provide Fairtrade coffee. Period.”

McLaughlin stressed a belief that SFU is a big enough university with enough purchasing power that has the responsibility to push corporations to do better when engaging the world. The coffee, tea, sugars, and bananas used at the dining hall, and at all conferences at SFU, are Fairtrade.

SFU also sponsors students to go to countries where these kinds of products are sourced, to talk to producers and to see the difference between Fairtrade and non-Fairtrade farms, with this year’s destination being Peru. Students return with new perspective, saying that Fairtrade is important, according to McLaughlin.

Anil Hira, a political science professor at SFU who has spent time researching the social responsibility of corporations, offered a realistic view of fair trade practices combined with a certain amount of optimism when he spoke with The Peak. He said that the Fairtrade practis\ces and their impacts are not uniform across the globe.

“In certain sectors, like coffee and chocolate, and in certain countries, it certainly has had a discernible impact. For example in Costa Rica, or some parts of Guatemala, fair trade is an important export. It probably has some wider effects on perceptions about what’s acceptable in terms of labour practices.”

He did go on, however, to explain how far fair trade still has to go. It still only makes up less than 1% of the international market. For example, Fairtrade is a bigger part of the European market by comparison.

“What [fair trade has] really done more than anything is it’s created a discussion. It hasn’t really changed the fundamentals of the market.”

He also noted that one of the biggest hurdles for fair trade is attaining popularity, not just in niche markets, but in average grocery stores. Hira said that additionally, the definition for “fair trade” is not universally agreed upon, which is an issue. Is it simply about labour rights, or should it encompass environmental wellbeing as well?  Because of that, fair trade standards are difficult to actually enforce.

Hira said that he believes the current purpose of Fairtrade campuses is to act as smaller spaces that can showcase the viability of Fairtrade, that can then become springboards for pushing change in wider society and in the larger overall market. If Fairtrade is truly successful, it can be “adopted as public regulation.” He added that North America, in terms of fair trade, is still chasing the standards set by the European market.

“Here, we’re asking the consumer to say ‘I’m buying something because it’s made in a more moral way,’ and not all consumers are willing to do that. Even on campus,” Hira says.  

One example is the concern for possible backlash, should Tim Hortons leave campus for not offering a Fairtrade option. Many people are not willing to pay the premium on the price for a more ethically produced product, such as a cup of coffee.

“That’s the difference between Tim Hortons and Starbucks. Tim Hortons is really quite price-sensitive, whereas at Starbucks people spend four dollars on a cup of coffee. Ten cents isn’t really going to make a difference, but for Tim Hortons they probably feel it does . . . That’s the demographics of the consumers . . .”

Concerning the student perspective on fair trade, we also spoke with Nikki Mertens, a member of  Embark SFU, a student association that focuses its work on sustainability issues on SFU campuses and within the university community. Mertens was formerly a Sustainability Peer Educator, one of the various initiatives used by Embark to educate students.

Mertens indicated that the importance of Fairtrade coffee on SFU campuses to students is dependent on individual student values, and that she’s often heard the argument that students can’t afford to pay a premium on their coffee. Despite this, she pointed to positive signs of students purchasing Fairtrade coffee. She mentioned that Starbucks has Fairtrade blends that are no more expensive than their other blends.

“Ethical Bean coffee and Renaissance Coffee, those are Fairtrade, and they’re cheaper than Starbucks. So, I don’t think that argument is really valid or relevant.” She also pointed out that if only Fairtrade coffee is available on campus, the argument will be non-existent, as students will have to buy Fairtrade.

Speaking about Tim Hortons, and any negative backlash from students, should they leave campus for not serving a Fairtrade option, Mertens echoed McLaughlin’s earlier statements. The price per cup of coffee wouldn’t escalate that much. She explained that they are only asking Tim Hortons to offer one Fairtrade blend for those who want it.

“We’re not telling Tim Hortons that they have to change their whole menu or anything like that. So I think what we’re asking for is reasonable,” said Mertens. “But they’ve shown us that they’re not willing to comply to these standards that SFU holds.”

She reiterated her belief that it is important for SFU to stick to the ethical values that they have set. “Personally, I just think that a farmer’s livelihood is more important than paying fifty extra cents. I think it’s important that [we] change the mindset of students at SFU to think that way, and be ethical, conscious consumers . . . Those kind of companies, even if they say they’re doing great things, often they only care about profit, and I don’t think we have a place for organizations like that at SFU or in our world.”

She went on to say that there needs to be a shift to companies that are making a genuine impact in their operations — caring about workers’ safety and other human rights issues, instead of just donating profits.  

SFU has embraced its role as a Fairtrade campus, seeing itself as a launching pad for social change, and the promotion of fair trade practices. Far from something the university merely stumbled upon, it has taken a concerted effort on the part of SFU, its staff, establishments, students, and student associations.

However, the university continues to strive for higher standards, and the battle to bring everyone onboard is still ongoing. If one thing is clear though, it is that students have the power to create change by making conscious decisions, banding together, and making better individual and collective choices.

“It’s as simple as just buying a Fairtrade coffee,” Mertens says.  



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