At my local Saturday farmers market, I stopped to buy some coffee at the local roaster’s booth. I was eying the wares when I noticed that the spendy bags of coffee ($9 for 12 oz.) labeled “Fair Trade” didn’t have the any independent certification of that fact.

I asked the guy behind the booth, and he said, “Well, it is fair trade coffee, and the owners pay the fair trade price, but they don’t want to pay for the label mark because it just pays people here in the U.S. — it just raises the price of a bag of beans, but none of that money goes to the farmers.”

So I asked, “But how can the system work to certify fair trade buyers if consumers don’t pay for that assurance? I’m sure you’re actually paying a fair price, but what keeps the next guy and the supermarket from saying the same thing? Besides, what does it add to the price of a bag, anyway?”

He repeated his bit about the owners not wanting to spend the money on certifiers, and he said that going the certified route would have added a dime to every bag sold.

I said that I would have been willing to pay a dime more for a certified bag, and that I hoped he would tell the owners that, unless they could come up with a way to have truly independent but in-country certification (so the money spent on certifying compliance with fair trade practices went to the country of origin), I wasn’t buying their beans or their argument about where the money goes.

I’ve been thinking about it more this week, while I drink some Bolivian certified organic, shade grown, certified Fair Trade coffee.

I pay a premium for these many assurances that I look for in coffee. What leads a roaster (or, by extension, any other seller) who claims to support the various practices that those assurances embody to decide that you don’t need the independent certification — that it’s OK, in other words, to simply claim the name (fair trade, organic, etc.), charge the same fancy prices as the certified guys, but not pay the certifiers?

How long will certification of fair trade practice survive if others adopt the same approach?

I tend to run into this more with organic, where the small farms in my area will say that, “Well, we practice organic but we can’t afford the certification.” I tend not to have as much of a problem with that, although the issue is the same at bottom — probably because I can go look at the farms. The grower is right in front of me, and risking his whole business if he tells me he’s using only organic practices but he’s then seen with a big trailer tankful of ammonium nitrate fertilizer on his land.

Not so with imported luxury products like coffee beans — I know the guy in front of me didn’t grow them, and even he paid the same wholesale price as the certified organic sellers, how do I know that the actual growers ever saw any of that money?

Of course, you can question whether any certification might be bogus — perhaps the fair trade mark is available to anyone with the right bribe …

I’d be interested in knowing what the foodies here think — is there anything to my local roasters’ argument, or is he just a free rider trying to ride the fair trade cachet without paying for the ride?

[Note: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I also may be more willing to let local folks slide on organic certification because Big Brother at USDA, in between attempts to destroy any real meaning to the word organic, has forbidden anyone to use the mark without paying the fee anyway, so now we really do have the odd situation where the local grower who practices fully organic farming is legally prevented from telling me that unless he’s willing to pay the most anti-sustainable-farming organization in the world — the U.S. government — for the privilege.]