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Why Illycaffe Doesn't Sell Fair Trade Coffee


The Fair Trade movement is beloved by socially conscious coffee connoisseurs, and for good reason—certification guarantees fair wages and labor conditions for farmers (coffee is purchased directly from growers for high prices); investments in community development; and sustainable farming practices. But Andrea Illy, CEO of illycaffè, doesn't use Fair Trade coffee beans in his business, despite a purported commitment to sustainability. Why not?

"Fair Trade certification is a system which is based on the grower being certified at his costs. He has to make the investment at his cost, his profit," Illy explains. "At the end of the day, the grower is the weakest part of the chain."

Enter Illy's University of Coffee, a training school for growers, trade professionals, and members of the public. Since opening in 2000, the university has trained over 50,000 people at branches in Italy, the U.S., the U.K., Brazil, and elsewhere. Many of the courses are pricey, but everything is free for growers—a marked difference from the Fair Trade certification program (according to the 2006 certification fee schedule, coffee producers pay $2,500 to $10,000 to cover inspection and certification costs).

According to Illy, growers who are put through the University of Coffee program come out with above-market growing standards—Brazil's training center features a nine-month program that includes "one week per month, 360 hours of lectures, 360 degrees in the world of coffee."

Illy buys between 10 and 30% of University of Coffee-trained growers' yield at a premium price, but doesn't require that growers enter into an exclusive contract. "We take the responsibility for the grower. That's why we have a team of agronomists, why we train growers, why we ask growers to certify different criteria at no cost. We pay the burden," Illy says.

Fair Trade isn't going anywhere, of course—not with coffee giant Starbucks pushing the certification. But Illy is confident in his brand's tactics. "We pursue environmental sustainability through the concept of respect," he says.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.