Monday, March 24, 2008

‘World Fair Trade Day’ - coming to Gwangju

The man with glasses and a nice jacket stood outside under the clear blue sky. He spoke with the other men. They stood in a semi-circle around him, watching, paying close attention. He asked how much a cup of coffee costs. They all knew the answer to that question. Then he asked them how much a cup of coffee costs in western countries. They did not know that one. It was his job to travel around the world, and his work to know that answer.

The man told the farmers a cup of their coffee overseas costs not twice the price, not even ten times the price, but actually more than 24 times the price of that same coffee in their home towns. The farmers simply looked at him in astonishment. They were stunned into a sudden, sullen silence. They tried to understand where all that money went. Then, he told them that for each kilo of coffee which they worked so hard to grow, they were paid barely 100th of the price earned by a multinational company selling coffee to a customer overseas.

This is only one scene from the quietly powerful movie named ‘Black Gold.’ The movie follows the man with glasses, the sales representative for the Ethiopian coffee farmers, as he travels around the world trying to find a fair price for his farmers’ coffee beans. Other scenes in the movie also point to one larger truth: ‘fair trade’ works well enough in a world where ‘free trade’ often seems badly broken.

1.) Tadesse Meskela and the coffee farmers from Ethiopia.

The word ‘free’ seems appropriate only in that four multi-national coffee companies are free to pay a bare minimum price to poverty-stricken farmers, while still making a record profit. Those four companies are Kraft, Nestle, Proctor & Gamble and Sara Lee. Whatever the name of the brand on your cup or packet of coffee, one of these companies probably owned those coffee beans at some stage before they got to you. They probably will have taken a big slice of the profit, unless your coffee is clearly labelled ‘fair trade.’

Coffee farmers used to earn better prices on the world market commodity exchange. That was until 1989, when the United States of America pulled out of the International Coffee Agreement which regulated the supply of coffee in the world. Vietnam, which had never been a coffee producing nation before, suddenly gained investment and finance to develop itself into a cheap, low grade coffee producing nation. This greatly increased the international supply of coffee which in turn led to a huge drop in price – for coffee growers – and since then, the price paid to farmers has fallen to a 30-year low. Meanwhile, the four coffee multinationals share record profits totalling more than US$80 billion per year.

Why is more profit not passed back to the workers within the ‘free trade’ market system? The man with glasses described the typical travel plan of his farmers’ coffee:

"Once the coffee is bought here [from the farms], the coffee buyers or the coffee exporters are going to unload the coffee at the warehouse and process it and sell to their buyers abroad. And after that, the buyer is going to distribute this coffee to roasters. And the roasters are going to buy this coffee again, and then they roast the coffee and sell to retailers and cafes. Coffee reaches the consumer after six [links in the] chain."

The man with the glasses is Tadesse Meskela. He manages the Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union, representing over 74,000 coffee farmers in Ethopia. Tadesse described the way ‘fair trade’ coffee travels a different route to get to coffee drinkers:

"We are cutting the chain, like the coffee suppliers, collectors, and also middlemen in between and we are eliminating these and directly linking the farmer through their own co-operative … directly to the roaster. About 60% of the chain is removed by working through co-operatives."

Some larger and established companies which are not labelled as being fair trade deal directly with co-operatives like Tedesse’s, such as the high quality Italian coffee brand ‘Illy’. Other, smaller companies exist with the specific goal of returning more profit directly to farmers. These are ‘fair trade’ companies. They often charge a higher price to coffee drinkers. This is called a ‘premium.’ Due to the ‘economies of scale’ small fair trade companies cannot afford to compete in price with larger companies. Larger companies buy and sell much larger amounts of coffee, and so can afford to charge a lower price.

Competition is played out instead in terms of quality, and the assurance that a ‘fair’ amount of the price is indeed returned to the original producers of the coffee in developing economy countries. This assurance is supported by various organisations which have recently established easily identified logos or symbols. At least one of these logos you are able to find on a packet of coffee you can buy in Gwangju. Other varieties of ‘fair trade’ coffee can also be bought in other places in Gwangju.

"For a product to display the FAIRTRADE Mark it must meet international Fairtrade standards which are set by the international certification body."
Read more here.

2.) This officially labelled fair trade coffee is available in Gwangju.
Find out where you can buy this and other brands on Saturday 10th, 2008, at GIC - The Gwangju International Center.

Some people are still cynical about the the ‘fair trade’ label. In a world where ‘seeing is believing’, few people get the chance to even care about where something as common as coffee is grown, and by whom, and in what living conditions those farmers live. Not many people get to actually travel to the place to see for themselves what impact trade is having on lives there. A student from New Zealand was among a group who did just that. Late last year Michelle, from Wellington, travelled to Ethopia and actually met Tadesse Meskala and some of the farmers from his co-operative.

On Saturday, 10th May, at GIC, from 2.30pm there will be a presentation of a brief report by Michelle on her trip to Ethopia. This will be part of the GIC Saturday afternoon talk series with a special focus on fair trade. Saturday 10th May is actually World Fair Trade Day for 2008. The day is being celebrated around the world as more and more people in western countries support the fair trade movement.

At the GIC Saturday afternoon talk that day there will also be a report on a survey of larger chain cafes and fair trade coffee in Gwangju and South Korea, a talk about the history of the development of fair trade, a screening of the movie Black Gold at 3.45 p.m., samples of fair trade coffee, tea and chocolate to try, and at around 4pm the draw of the raffle for the fantastic fair trade prize pack worth w150,000.

You can buy raffle tickets at GIC for only w1,000, and learn more about fair trade, and the fair trade raffle prize pack on this website,

and find more information on World Fair Trade Day at:

Find out more about Black Gold, the movie, at:

3.) The fair trade raffle prize pack
to be drawn at GIC on World Fair Trade Day, May 10th.

Tickets available at GIC from now until then.


Edited version appeared in Gwangju News - Volume 8, Issue 4 - April, 2008

Trendy Korean shopping – fair enough?

We walked around down town, passing by Kumnamno on the way home after another meal. It was early on in a warm autumnal evening in late 2001. We were in a jubilant mood from the great Gwangju food, the approach of the Christmas festive season, and with it a break at the end of our years’ contracts. We were happy with life in Gwangju… except for one thing. Brian was a coffee drinker and a traveller, and had sampled the best of international espresso culture in Italy and elsewhere. As we wandered happily along that night he mentioned how interesting it was that Koreans seemed content to drink so much hazelnut coffee.

You can imagine his excitement when espresso coffee shops suddenly started appearing around town. Within a week of our conversation that night we noticed the first new café near our school. The very sight of a real coffee machine and the strong aroma of freshly ground coffee beans excited Brian, and he quickly befriended the owner/operator on his daily visits. Life suddenly seemed complete. Gwangju was re-established as the centre of the universe and all that was cool.

Suddenly, before and after the 2002 World Cup, faster than you can say: “DDR!” lots of new trends appeared. A whole squad of local and international chain coffee shops opened down town and throughout the country. The Korean doughnuts craze began, bagels mysteriously appeared in quality bread stores, and shiny movie multiplexes sprouted and started showing good local films. Fortunately, the whole peroxide-hair colour thing was more of a quick fad and less of a lasting trend. More recently high quality, high percentage chocolate has been confirmed as the latest health-food elixir.

The success of these trends proves Korea is a capable capitalist country of diligent shopaholics and savvy style-spotters. It was with great surprise then that I recently found a major shopping trend that has been developing in many nations overseas but remains new to Korea: ‘fair trade’. When home at the end of last year I found high quality, high percentage fair trade chocolate in the supermarkets; fair trade coffee brands in common coffee shops, and a new café chain store specialising in fair trade coffee. Even the local shop from the national fair trade chain store has moved from a cheap-rent street to an upmarket corner down town.

There are many reasons why Korea could and should take up the fair trade trend. Korea is a newly developed nation, so now has a large middle class who can afford to pay the ‘premium,’ or relatively high prices of fair trade products. Officially certified fair trade products are consistently of the highest quality. Fair trade agricultural produce is usually organic which goes well with Korea’s popular well-being trend. Some say buying fair trade is a way to subvert or resist the power of multinational corporations and their corrupt western governments who try to force FTAs on countries like Korea. Finally, Korea is well placed to support fair trade producers in nearby countries in the Asia-Pacific region, for example by importing fair trade bananas or sugar from the Philippines, fair trade tea from Nepal, or fair trade coffee or honey from Vietnam.

So as you savour some chocolate, or sip your favourite drink from a trendy new Gwangju café this month, ask yourself how much the farmers who grew the beans were paid for all their labour; or even better, ask the shop manager or staff. Do they know anything about the new fair trade trend? If not, give them a copy of Gwangju News next month when there will be a special feature article on the topic. You could also invite them to the special Saturday afternoon talk session on May 10th, which is World Fair Trade Day for 2008. Cynics, supporters, trend-spotters, and anyone curious for a sample of fair trade tea, coffee or chocolate are welcome.


Edited version published in Gwangju News - Volume 8, Issue 3 - March, 2008.

Welcome to Fair Trade Gwangju

This is the home of the organisation of a group of Koreans and foreigners looking at the issues and benefits of fair trade, including the availability of fair trade products in Gwangju City, Jeollanamdo.

In terms of products, the main focus is initially coffee. Fair trade chocolate is available in slightly more limited supply... as far as we know as of 24th March, 2008. Any information on where to purchase any fair trade products in this city, province or country (including Korean language websites) is gladly welcomed and will be included on the site.

There are four specific areas of information we expect to provide.

1.) Articles generally outlining and introducing fair trade to a broader audience, including location of access points to fair trade products locally and nationally.
2.) Web links to sites, including fair trade organisations around the world, studies and information.
3.) Our own study on fair trade in Gwangju, focusing on attitudes toward the supply of fair trade coffee by major coffee chain stores in Gwangju.
4.) Upcoming events planned for World Fair Trade Day 2008, on Saturday 10th May, at The Gwangju International Center.

Visit here for regular updates on these areas, and more.