The Power of a Trade Association

By Ric Rhinehart, Executive Director, Specialty Coffee Association of America

Trade associations have a long and storied history in the world. The first trade associations were organized as guilds dating back to the Middle Ages. These groups organized to promote the interests of their members—ranging from craftsmen to students—and largely replaced the religious fraternities that organized craftsmen from Roman times. The term “guild” is a reference to the common fund of gold they maintained for their activities. Since these times, groups have formed all over the world to promote or protect the interests of their stakeholders in fields ranging from astrophysics (The National Astronomy and Astrophysics Association) to zoo keepers (American Association of Zoo Keepers). The US has been particularly prolific, with some 90,000 legally incorporated non-profit trade associations operating in 2011. Why do we like the trade association model so much? What does a trade association do that businesses cannot do for themselves? How can we realize the benefits of an association? What will our association do for us now and in the future?

The most basic driver for the trade association is that together we can accomplish what cannot be done single-handedly. By uniting our resources, we can leverage them in many different arenas in ways that no single company can. To that end, trade associations have traditionally engaged in lobbying and guiding governmental regulation of their industries; in developing standards and best practices; in providing education and professional development for those employed in their industry; in promoting the products of their industry to the public; and in acting as a watchdog for negative impressions of their industries.

For coffee in the US, the regulatory and governmental affairs functions by a trade association have long been the purview of the National Coffee Association. The NCA has done yeoman’s work over the last century to minimize trade barriers, keep the regulatory climate for coffee positive, and to keep the bureaucracy that tends to grow around the import and production of food and beverages in check. Similar efforts have been undertaken by other nationally based trade associations in other countries, with the European Coffee Federation, the German Coffee Association, the All Japan Coffee Association, and the Canadian Coffee and Tea Association all actively pursuing their national interests in coffee. The SCAA has played a supporting role whenever needed to support NCA’s efforts in this arena, adding its voice and the voices of its members where and when it could benefit the industry, at both national and state levels.

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