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Plenty of False Claims Cloud Fairy Tales about Fair Trade

Workers in Mexico sort coffee beans. Source: Joe Driscoll
Workers in Mexico sort coffee beans.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Many fair-trade products are full of conventional ingredients, because the concept of fairness means different things to different people.

  • Facts


    • A German coffee roasting company misled its customers for years by making false claims about where and how it got its beans.
    • Up to 80 percent of products certified as fair-trade can consist of ingredients without fair-trade credentials.
    • Many Western food companies and environmental organizations tout their use and support of fair-trade practices in the Third World.
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Africa is a continent of miracles, which is why many miraculous stories are told there – about coffee, for example. In one of these stories, a coffee roaster from a town near Mannheim in southwestern Germany claims that the beans it sells are harvested from “coffee plants growing wild in virgin forest.” In its advertising, the company states that it has a close “personal relationship with the coffee farmers” in the Ethiopian highlands, and that nothing matters more to the company than “fair trade.”

How touching. It’s the kind of yarn that companies use to satisfy the sensitive dispositions of German consumers, so as not to disrupt their fantasies about the idyllic lives of small farmers in the Ethiopian highlands – a place where men climb the hillsides in the morning fog, searching for individual coffee bushes in the undergrowth, and where they pick coffee, bean by bean, returning home to their villages, exhausted but happy, in the evening.

Until a few years ago, the coffee company was telling its touching tale in organic supermarkets in the southwestern city of Freiburg. Unfortunately, it was nothing but a fairy tale.

But now the reality has come to light: The company’s beans don’t actually grow on wild bushes but almost exclusively in coffee plantations. The roaster’s personal relationship with Ethiopian small farmers turned out to be nothing but a relationship with a wholesaler in Hamburg. And its claim to be selling a “fair-trade” product was nothing but a self-designed logo on the package. It was all too much of a good thing, a court in Karlsruhe concluded when it ordered the roaster to stop making these claims in its product advertising and labeling.

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