Review in the CCPA Monitor

In Pursuit of Justice
Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op and the Fair Trade Movement

By Stacey Byrne and Errol Sharpe  

Have you had a cup of coffee today? If it was “fair trade” do you know if your purchase directly improved a poor farmer’s livelihood? Fair trade advocates would like us to believe it does. And with annual sales of over $1 billion, surely the fair trade movement must be having a net positive impact, right? The uncomfortable truth is that the gains from fair trade certification are varied, and the corporate co-optation of the movement has prevented the goodwill of consumers form improving the livelihoods of producers. This begs the fundamental question of whether the growth of the movement can be reconciled with its initial principles of social justice, solidarity and democracy? It’s the question Stacey Byrne and Errol Sharpe tackle in their book, In Pursuit of Justice, while telling the story of Halifax’s Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-operative, Canada’s first fair trade coffee establishment. Jeff and Debra Moore, both passionate about social justice but with precious little knowledge of the coffee industry, envisioned a non-traditional business model based on producer welfare, and concern for democracy and the environment. After a trip to Chiapas, Mexico in 1995, a few loans and some luck, Just Us! Started selling fair trade certified coffee purchased directly from the UCIRI co-op in Mexico. Relatively little is known about the development of northern fair trade co-operatives. In Pursuit of Justice provides a necessary and intimate look into a worker management co-op that is historically and socially significant. Byrne and Sharpe give an unflinching account of the difficulties the co-op faced in developing its management structure. Central were the challenges of practicing collective ownership, and balancing efficiency and democracy in a neoliberal environment. The authors locate Just Us! Within a wider movement that simultaneously attempts to be “in the and against the market.” The existence of a co-op within a capitalist economy produces inevitable contradictions. These played out during the co-op’s development in two fundamental ways: in workplace relations where workers felt excluded from the decision-making structure and in structurally unequal relationships between Just Us! and its producer co-operatives. The founders of Just Us! were all too aware that as long as manufacturing took place in the Global North and extraction in the Global South the most lucrative benefits would accrue in the hands of northern businesses. Although direct trade (i.e. trade that doesn’t require an intermediary), the payment of a social premium to producers, and the redistribution of profits to communities can offset these costs, Jeff and Debra became closely acquainted with the inherent limits of the fair trade movement, despite their co-op being successful by conventional indicators. In Pursuit of Justice is largely a descriptive account of the development of the Just Us! co-op and, perhaps as a result, thin on analysis at times. Although Chapter 3 provides a helpful background on fair trade for non-specialists, the central question about balancing growth and principles comes, disappointingly, at the book’s conclusion. While Byrne and Sharpe locate Just Us! somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between growth and principles, they offer little in the way of assessing the co-op’s impact on the broader fair trade movement. In the final chapter, Byrne and Sharpe dip into a dizzying number of topics ranging from the corporate turn of the movement to the challenges of realizing producer-consumer solidarity, each of which could be a volume unto itself. This leaves the ready hazy on the prospects for amore emancipatory fair trade movement. That said, fully answering the question of why fair trade hasn’t transformed global social relations and dismantled capitalism is a daunting task, one difficult to take up in 136 pages. Activists, educators and entrepreneurs will take away something from this book, whether it is about the struggles to balance ideology and growth, how to execute a value-driven business strategy, or how to think about global capitalism. In Pursuit of Justice is a compelling and accessibly written account for those curious about how to chart new paths in a market-driven world.

— Amy Wood is a master of arts candidate at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a research assistant and the CCPA.

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