The Wall Street Journal’s Fair Trade Faux Pas

Posted by Chris O’Brien

Today the fair trade adventures of the Bean Activists hit the big time in a story covering fair trade coffee tours in the Wall Street Journal.

The article gets off to a bad start by making the most common mistake of sloppy journalists covering fair trade – interchanging the terms “free trade” and “fair trade.” These terms are prima facie contradictory in meaning. Free trade in this context refers to the conventional global coffee market that allows coffee to be traded as a commodity on the New York coffee exchange. Fair trade refers to a system of trade that embraces principles of social and economic justice. Please, journalists, get this right. Your job is to communicate clearly, not to confuse very basic facts. If I seem testy about this it is because fair trade is complex enough as it is without the media complicating it further by making easily avoidable mistakes.

I suspect the journalist in question may actually be sympathetic to fair trade, as is often the case with people covering this issue, but unfortunately the article only gets worse after the unforgivable “free trade” faux pas. In predictable WSJ form, the article treats fair trade coffee tours as little more than a low-cost marketing tool used for building customer loyalty and increasing business.

Even worse is that the article contends that small coffee roasters embrace fair trade merely as a way of carving out a business niche. While this is undoubtedly true for some roasters, it is most certainly not true for at least two of the companies referenced in the article: Higher Grounds and Just Coffee.

They see their devotion to fair trade as a way to set themselves apart from less socially conscious competitors. And these companies are using tours to coffee farms that use fair-trade practices as a way to reinforce that mission — and, ideally, forge a stronger connection with current and potential customers who also are committed to the cause.

Higher Grounds was started by Chris and Jody Treter as a way of addressing economic and political injustices in Chiapas, Mexico. Just Coffee has a similar commitment to justice and sustainability. They even say so in their company tagline: “Not just a market but a movement.” In other words, they are specifically not trying to differentiate themselves from other coffee companies but rather to align with those who hold similar convictions regarding fair trade.

Fondo PaezI know from first hand experience that Higher Grounds conducts tours as primarily an opportunity for educational outreach (that’s me in the cowboy hat at left, with L-to-R Mel from Peace Coffee, Chris and Jody, and Miguel from Fondo Paez).
Higher Grounds does conduct paid fair trade coffee tours to Chiapas. Do they cover their costs through participant fees? Sure. Does it ultimately lead to increased customer loyalty and hence improved sales? Probably. Is that why they do it? No.

In fact, the particular tour pictured above was actually not even a paid tour – we were all there at our own expense to learn about the indigenous farmer coop Fondo Paez. To be fair, the journalist may not have known that about this particular picture, but it does point up the fact that the Journal seems incapable of seeing human behavior through any thing but a capitalist lens.

The point of fair trade is that profit isn’t the only thing driving human behavior. Justice and sustainability are important in their own right – not just as marketing strategies that permit business growth. The Wall Street Journal article misses this point entirely.


5 Responses to The Wall Street Journal’s Fair Trade Faux Pas

  1. Mary Lee Treter says:

    Thanks, Chris, for expressing my feelings exactly. I was looking forward to reading the article in the WSJ, but was very disappointed in the message it gave. I know first hand the hard work and dedication to promoting social and economic justice that Chris and Jody devote their lives to every day. And for all the right reasons that you mentioned. Thanks for taking the time to set the record straight. Maybe the WSJ should print your response to their article!

  2. Mr. Joel says:

    Dang, the WSJ got “free trade” wrong? Isn’t economics rather a central mission for them?

  3. beeractivist says:


    Yeah, one would think that, of all publishers, the Journal would know what “free trade” is – but alas, sloppy journalism plus a built-in bias for seeing all things through an economic lens equals one of the world’s most recognized news sources…

    Chris O’

  4. “it does point up the fact that the Journal seems incapable of seeing human behavior through any thing but a capitalist lens.”

    HAHAHA! What exactly did you expect?

  5. I am Colombian and in our country small associations of coffee farmers are being created that sell their product through fair trade, obtaining more money to invest in their family.

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