While in Nicaragua, I ran into Rick Peyser of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters , who is also on the board of the Specialty Coffee Association of America , Coffee Kids , and the Fair Trade Labeling Organizations  (quite a triple crown!). He mentioned that he would be speaking at an event at St Mary’s College  (where I am an adjunct professor) along with Nell Newman of Newman’s Own Organics .
Both are passionate and articulate supporters of Fair Trade, and it was really fabulous to hear them on campus. It was also gratifying to hear students engage and ask critical questions regarding everything from coffee prices to the use of shade trees on smallholder farms.
While Fair Trade has supporters across all demographics, the campus environment seems to be especially receptive to the idea, with a high student interest in social justice and United Students for Fair Trade  chapters on over 200 campuses. When I am asked by licensees about raising consumer awareness and market share for Fair Trade, I sometimes jokingly respond that all that we need to do is sit back and wait five years for all of the college students to graduate.
It is almost certainly because I’m cynical and over 40, but I find myself wondering if the Fair Trade / student connection is a fad like Ugg boots or flip flops (worn by virtually all students attending the St Mary’s event, in January!), a youthful passion like…well, you know, all youthful passions, or the sign of a long-term shift in consumerism.
I asked Heather Putnam, part of the USFT leadership team, who graciously joined us in Nicaragua what she thought. She told me:
“I don't think it is a fad or fashion, as students have been coming to this arena since well before 2000, and they keep coming in…Students are students--they pass through 4 or 5 years of their lives devoted exclusively to learning and finding their own power, so it makes sense that there will be more and more active activists in that age group. But it does not mean that once they leave school that they leave it behind, although on the surface it might appear to that way. The fact exists that they have opened their eyes, at least a little, to the questions they must ask as consumers, and that stays with them their entire lives hopefully.”
If this is true, and I hope it is, a whole generation of more thoughtful consumers is gradually mainstreaming ethical consumerism, whether these former students remain activists or not.
Speaking of the mainstream, Nell and Rick’s organizations have managed to launch Fair Trade Certified coffee into an extended test market of McDonald’s restaurants in the Northeastern US. This is an exciting experiment that we hope to see continue. As Fair Trade coffee becomes available in more and more mainstream outlets – from Dunkin’ Donuts to Wal-Mart, and now even McDonald’s– it’s nice to know that the consumer base will be there to ask for it.
Next week: Organic Inc? News from the Eco-farm conference.