Our campus is in the midst of enforcing some big changes: by December 2015, UTM is hoping to be a certified Fairtrade campus.

According to the food service contract signed in May 2015, Chartwells has agreed to be Fairtrade certified within six months of the agreement, along with promises to increase the purchase of cage-free eggs (“by 100 percent annually”) and to “sustainably source 100 percent of wild caught fish and seafood.”

Now, let’s be honest here: do you actually know what fair trade is? To save you the trouble of having to look it up in a dictionary, here’s the short summary. Fair trade is a movement that aims to help producers in developing countries get fair prices for their products. This (according to Merriam Webster) reduces poverty, provides ethical treatment for both workers and farmers, and promotes environmentally sustainable prices.

According to Simmy Saini, a fourth-year environmental management and sociology major, once UTM is certified, it will only be able to buy products with the Fairtrade International blue and green logo, even though there are other logos representing a variety of fair trade certification organizations.

Saini says she vaguely understood what fair trade meant when she started the Fairtrade at UTM Research Opportunity Program over the summer. Saini and three other students did extensive research to get a sense of what was going on in terms of fair trade for both the campus and in the surrounding community.

“From the surveys we did, we realized a lot of students didn’t understand what fair trade was about,” said Saini.

“Operation Groundswell (a backpacktivism group in Guatemala) had originally designed a fair trade program several years ago,” says Nicole Laliberte, a geography lecturer at UTM. “When we got there this summer, none of Groundswell’s partners were still with Fairtrade. Though they still participated in justice and equity, the Fairtrade certification and market had become primitive to them.” Laliberte was one of the faculty members who went on the Guatemala trip and also supervised the ROP project.

Kristen Schaper, a fourth-year major in environmental sciences, wanted to participate in the Fairtrade at UTM project because she had gone to Guatemala with student life at the beginning of the summer and had seen how fair trade wasn’t effective.

Schaper remembers one of the farmers at whose homestead they spent the night. “He told us that fair trade was no good for him and he wanted nothing more to do with it because it was too expensive.”

To participate, the fair trade certification itself costs about $6,000, which farmers pay from their own pocket. “If a farmer sells maybe about 100 pounds of the coffee on the fair trade market, then the rest of what they have has to go to the regular market, even though it is fair trade,” says Schaper. “They don’t end up making that $6,000 back. A lot of the farmers go for organic certification because it’s less expensive, about $3,000, and they can sell all of that. Organic is much more popular than fair trade.”

Schaper and Laliberte found that many of the producers had chosen direct trade. In direct trade, the producers cut out the intermediary and sell their beans directly to vendors. Laliberte learned that the people they had met in Guatemala sold their beans directly to Moonbeam Café in Kensington Market.

Pierre Desrochers, associate geography professor at UTM, calls fair trade “a well-meaning dead-end”.

“Fair trade is a movement that is based on charity. You’re telling people not to buy coffee because it is the best price or quality, but because it is a charitable act,” he says.

“Rather, farmers producing low-quality beans should find other crops or jobs, since the market would choose to buy the better-quality producers.”

“The way the economic system is set up, it privileges the retailers, as opposed to privileging the producers,” says Laliberte.

Rust, a coffee plant infection, has increased with global climate change. “The small-scale producers are very vulnerable to rust destroying their crops,” Laliberte continues. Farmers are currently selling their product on a market that isn’t attentive to this fact. “They’re the ones taking on all the risk for global climate change in terms of their livelihoods.”

She says she can foresee additional problems with fair trade, such as the certification process. She says the more institutionalized it is, the harder it becomes to adapt to changes happening to small farmers, which was the original purpose.

UTM currently offers some Fairtrade coffees and teas at Deerfield Hall and in the Oscar Peterson Hall. Once certified, students will be able to find Fairtrade coffee, tea, chocolate, and bananas at other locations on campus.

One of the steps a university needs to take before it becomes certified is to host a campus-wide educational event to inform students about fair trade. UTM’s Student Life plans to host events September 21–25, during Fair Trade on Campus week.

“Saying that ‘we are going Fairtrade’ is not the end of the conversation—it is the beginning,” says Laliberte. “I’m really looking forward to where that conversation will take us and the kinds of engagement that we can have both with community partners, as well as with producers around the world, and a better understanding of where our food is coming from.”