Why Illy will never sell fair trade coffee

Not “Fairtrade certified.”
Not “Fairtrade certified.”
Image: AP/Mark Lennihan
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Illycaffè says its coffee doesn’t mix with fair trade.

Andrea Illy, the company’s chairman and CEO, told Quartz that while he endorses higher wages for growers, you won’t be seeing any “Fairtrade certified” Illy coffee. At the opening of the first Illy café in London yesterday, he offered two reasons why:

1. Fair trade products are interchangeable

People buy fair trade products as a way of showing “solidarity” with coffee bean farmers, Illy said—”to pay more for a product than it is worth on the market for the sake of fighting against poverty.”

Illy says that’s unsustainable: “They drink fair trade products occasionally for the sake of feeling right, not necessarily regularly.” And even if people continue to buy fair trade products, he said, they’re more apt to switch brands.

2. Fair trade doesn’t improve quality

“Once upon a time, we were buying one [coffee] lot out of ten,” Illy said. “Now we buy six out of ten.” The company has been able to improve the quality of its selection thanks to its own sustainability efforts, which he described as “beyond fair trade.”

In Illycaffè’s early days, the company would simply pay more for good coffee. But when it returned the following year, the farmers weren’t capable of producing the same coffee. They were “struggling in being consistent,” Illy said.

Illy said that the coffee growers and the company “select each other based on cultural affinities.” Once they’re partners, Illycaffè starts a process of “transferring knowledge”, taking time to understanding the needs and problems of the farmers. Many growers are even sent to the company’s Brazil-based University of Coffee for free training.

The idea is “full sustainability,” according to Illy. With the training, the growers produce better coffee more consistently and can scale their business by planting extra hectares. Illy adds that farmers can also “transfer this knowledge from father to son across generations,” no doubt a reference to Illycaffè’s own family history. (Andrea’s grandfather Francesco founded the company; Andrea’s father,Ernesto took over after World War II.)

The final step in Illycaffè’s process is buying the coffee directly. The company pays a premium for better coffee, ensuring growers receive a “good profit,” regardless of the market cycle. In Illy’s eyes, that’s better than fair trade.