Fair Trade Coffee’s Aftertaste

Fair Trade Coffee’s Aftertaste

Since its beginning in the 20th century, the entire Fair Trade movement has been organized under a single labeling organization, known as Fair Trade International. After diverging from Fair Trade International, Fair Trade USA started certifying coffee estates in order to improve the working and living conditions of the most disadvantaged farmworkers.

By Stefania Sellitti, Martha Del Río, and Natalia Gutiérrez


To understand whether certification reached its goals, demonstrating itself to be effective at empowering farmworkers and improving their livelihoods, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) conducted the research project “Measuring and assessing impacts of Fair Trade for All on farmers, farmworkers, and the overall Fair Trade market system” . After the third year of the project, we analyzed the data collected to assess the impact of certification on farmworkers’ welfare and empowerment in Brazil and Nicaragua. We created two multi-dimensional indexes in order to evaluate the influence that certification has on several aspects of workers’ life.

CIAT’s work

CIAT collected data on certified and noncertified estates in both Nicaragua and Brazil to be able to compare the livelihoods and empowerment level of workers from estates participating in the Fair Trade system with the ones from noncertified estates. We collected data at two analytical levels: micro, by conducting surveys among farmworkers, and meso, using semi-structured interviews and focus groups. This approach of our study allowed us to interpret the results obtained from our analysis at the micro level in a light qualitative analysis conducted at the meso level.

As shown in our previous post, we interviewed:


By Ovidio Rivera.


farmworkers from certified farms


farmworkers from noncertified farms


By Ovidio Rivera.


farmworkers in a baseline survey


farmworkers in an endline survey, of which


were from certified farms


were from noncertified farms

Measuring multidimensional indexes

The index of welfare for farmworkers and their households is composed of five different dimensions:

  • Accessibility to health services.
  • Accessibility to educational services.
  • The standards of living of the family, including per capita income, assets owned, and house quality.
  • Households’ food security.
  • Satisfaction with life.

As for the index of empowerment, we decided to include the following information:

  • Farmworkers’ involvement in political life.
  • Accessibility to training.
  • Accessibility to financial services.
  • Type of contract (written or verbal, long-term or short-term).
  • Quality of the working environment.
  • Average number of working hours.
  • Percentage of farmworkers in the household who are part of an organization.


By Diana Cordoba.

Our analysis revealed that certification contributed to an increase in welfare of both Nicaraguan and Brazilian farmworkers. In both countries, the improvement in welfare is mainly due to the improvement in the dimensions health and education, because of households’ increased perception of accessibility to educational and health services, the provision of subsidies to education, and the decreased distance from the closest healthcare center. In Nicaragua, we did not find an effect of certification on the dimension living standards. Nevertheless, we found an improvement in house quality, especially because of the increased number of households accessing water through pipes and having electricity and toilets or latrines. On the other hand, we found a positive effect on the living standards of Brazilian farmworkers because of the increased number of assets owned by the household, such as bikes, computers, and internet access, and increased house quality, due to better access to piped water and toilets.

From our results, we could deduce that the effectiveness of certification might also depend on farm size. Indeed, we found that certification contributes more to the empowerment of Nicaraguan farmworkers who come from smaller estates than for farm workers in Brazil, where the certified estate is much bigger than the one in Nicaragua. In both Nicaragua and Brazil, we found increased access to financial services, whereas in Nicaragua certification had a positive effect also on the dimension access to training.

As a drawback of certification, we found that in both Nicaragua and Brazil the quality of the working environment decreased with the introduction of certification. This might be a reflection of the increased pressure that farm owners put on farmworkers, hoping to increase their coffee quality and to sell more under FT certification.

Lessons learned

Our work revealed that FT certification for farmworkers has a positive effect on several aspects of workers’ empowerment and welfare. However, this analysis needs to be read carefully, taking into account the coffee market context. Indeed, in our study, we found several limitations, mainly caused by the high fluctuations in coffee market prices, the small demand for FT coffee, and internal problems among stakeholders. Moreover, when analyzing the effect of certification on farmworkers on estates, it is essential to consider that the impact might change based on the size of the farm and on membership in other certification schemes.

Regarding the problem of farm size, we found that the most important changes with certification were experienced by farmworkers from middle-sized farms such as the Nicaraguan certified estate. Furthermore, we were not able to control for some externalities that could have influenced the impact of certification. For example, in Nicaragua, there is a new business model that should be considered when the impact of Fair Trade Premium is analyzed.

In the case of Brazil, the FT-certified estate was the first company in the country owning UTZ certification and one of the largest worldwide suppliers of Rainforest Alliance coffee; thus, it was already complying with multiple certification standards and did not have to make any significant changes to become Fair Trade Certified. Hence, we believe that the positive values obtained in the quantitative analysis cannot be fully attributed to FT. Thus, our results can be interpreted more appropriately as a contribution that FT gives to the empowerment and welfare of farmworkers, rather than an impact.

Some field work pictures

This research is supported by

This work is affiliated to