What is Fair Trade Coffee, and Should You Buy It?

pinnable fair trade coffee

By Jessica, Contributing Writer 

This month Stephanie challenged us to think deeply about a “tough” food issue.

Fair trade coffee stuck out to me, not because I’m an expert - but precisely because I am not. I love coffee, I buy coffee… And I always feel a twinge of guilt when I bypass the “fair trade” section for something more affordable.

I decided it was time to get to the bottom of the issue. What exactly is fair trade coffee? Does it really matter if I buy it?

This is not an easy question to answer, it turns out, but I sure learned a whole lot!

The place to start is this: Why is coffee such a big deal, anyway?

I mean, think about it. You’re not seeing any governing bodies demanding a fair price for iPhones, are you? Why coffee?

Put very simply, coffee is the second most-traded product worldwide, largely produced by the poorest countries in the world, but consumed by the richest countries in the world.

And this presents a problem.

If you don’t see the problem, think about it this way: If your four-year-old is trying to “sell” you her broken crayons, what are her chances of getting a “fair” price? Well, since you’re the one in charge, with infinitely more money, whether she gets paid anything “fair” depends on your mood, or the goodness of your heart.

Coffee farmers represent some of the poorest people in the world. And it doesn’t help that coffee seasons can be fickle. A year of plenty, a year of nothing.

A long time ago kindhearted people desired a way for poor farmers (coffee and otherwise) to get a fair price, a price that wouldn’t depend on the kind of growing season they had, how much product was produced or how fair the buyers were.

A fairly traded product.

This concept has gained ground in recent years. Nowadays, there are several official certifying “fair trade” organizations whose goal is to support farmers by creating an “alternate market” to buy and sell. These groups inspect the farmers, examine their practices, make requests, and if all goes well, they stamp “Fair Trade” on the bag for consumers to see.

What does “fair trade” mean exactly?

beans1

I was surprised to learn that “fair trade” means more than just a fair price. It requires farmers to use more environmentally-safe methods, enlists fair labor laws (no child labor, for one example) and even donates proceeds to a “cooperative” of farmers for them to do a project of their own choosing – build a school, plant a garden, achieve medical help, etc.

The goal is to truly help these poor farmers.

Sure sounds good, right? A no-brainer? Well, almost…

Are there critics of Fair Trade?

Ohhh, yes. In fact, when I started researching, I thought, what in the world have I gotten myself into? For every inspirational fair trade website (like this one), there’s someone yammering just as loudly with an objection (like this one).

No one objects to the goal of Fair Trade organizations (helping poor workers), but many argue that fair trade certification doesn’t fix the problem. Here are some of the main objections:

  • No distinction for quality. All “fair trade coffee” is given the same status, regardless of how it was grown. The minimum price is the same for every farm’s coffee.
  • Too selective. You have to be a small private international farm to earn the label “free trade.” This means that large labels like Kraft or Nestle can’t earn this distinction, even if they treat their workers fairly and meet all requirements.
  • Does it really help the workers? Some argue that since the farmers/land owners get the profits, the very poor migrant worker in the fields isn’t benefited. The really poor, they say, aren’t reaping the rewards.

coffee in a bag

So what do you do?

In my very humble opinion, here are a few conclusions I’ve come to:

  • The Fair Trade movement may not be perfect, but it’s a start. There may be flaws with the system, but the workers are paid fair wages, with additional returns being invested into the farming community.
  • There are other companies doing great things for coffee workers, and not always in the name of “fair trade.” All sorts of companies have recognized that fair farming matters, and they have paved their own way, forming partnerships with farmers and truly making a difference in coffee-growing communities. (Good African, TechnoServe, and “direct trade” companies such as Farmer’s Direct.)
  • Finally (and there’s no way around it): my money matters. Every dollar I spend can help or hurt someone, somewhere.

I’ll be honest with this last one. It’s hard.

Right now I have a $5,500 bill awaiting me for a recent car repair (the radiator conked out).

And these boys! They just keep growing, and eating, and needing more stuff. I’m treading water here, and it’s easier for not to think. To just not think about how my coffee ended up being my coffee.

If nothing else, this question of fair trade coffee reminds me to ask the Lord for wisdom in how I spend my money - even money for something as simple as a cup of coffee.

Do you buy fair trade coffee? Have you found a coffee company that you respect?

 

About Jessica Smartt

Jessica Smartt is a former middle-school teacher who lives in beautiful North Carolina. You can find her at www.smarttereachday.com where she enjoys poking fun at the everyday challenges of motherhood, sharing delicious allergy-free recipes, and rejoicing that God still loves her no matter what phobia she has recently developed. She is blessed beyond belief with two Smartt little boys and a husband who can fix anything.

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Comments

  1. Great article and made me think. Is tea much the same?

  2. Betterlifecoffee.com supports an orphanage in Nicaragua (where the coffee beans come from). Their coffee is very high quality and oh so aromatic!

  3. Priscilla W says:

    Look at http://thomasstreetcoffee.com/ See what they are about (here is a small part off their website) TSC purchases beans from farmers in Ethiopia, Uganda, Honduras, Indonesia and other countries where 40% of unreached people groups live. Through strategic partnerships, those purchases contribute to evangelistic efforts, schools, libraries, medical facilities, women’s literacy programs, clean water wells, church planting, financial instruction and agricultural education. – See more at: http://thomasstreetcoffee.com/our-mission.aspx#sthash.DVv0krWe.dpuf

  4. looks like the canadian site still does… http://www.tenthousandvillages.ca/shop/en/41-food-drink

  5. ten thousand villages sells fair trade coffee, they are a fair trade organization run by Mennonite Central Committee (mission organization) that sells gift items made by artisans. they used to sell fair trade coffee as well in our local store (i don’t see it online any more though. http://www.tenthousandvillages.com/

  6. I buy fair trade coffee at Aldi. It’s the cheapest fair trade I can find, the perfect mix of two things important to me – saving money and not squashing people’s lives in the process. I imagine Trader Joe’s has something similar if you have those.

  7. I buy fair trade for myself and from a local coffee house that roasts their own coffee in Southern California. I know that they interact with the farmers and have been to the farms they buy from. I buy to help support the local business, the coffee farmers and because I can taste the quality in my coffee. I’m a bit of a coffee snob. My husband doesn’t care though so I buy him the cheap stuff so mine lasts longer. This is what is helping our budget.

  8. I think that the crutch of the matter is in your first paragraph, “I always feel a twinge of guilt when I bypass the “fair trade” section for something more affordable.” The very fact that this issue elicits a feeling of guilt is proof enough that there is something that is not quite right. No one should feel guilty for taking care of their family–that is what we are doing when we decide to purchase something because it is less expensive–choosing to spend money on our families another way–some way that we deem to be better. If we can purchase something to help someone else and still take care of our families in the way we need to, great. If not, should we choose something just because x, y or z? There are much deeper problems than one small farm in a country can solve, and making a purchase is not going to ultimately change the lives of the people who live and work on those farms–it is simply a band-aid.

    • Emily McClements says:

      Ashley, I have to say that this kind of attitude really breaks my heart. Because the real truth is that our choices DO have an impact. Small changes and small choices do matter – when you put many families’ small choices (to buy fair-trade) together – you *can* create great change in the lives of the people who live and work on those farms. And it is what God has called us to do – Love our neighbors as ourselves. How are we loving our neighbors on the other side of the world if we are thinking of our own comfort and convenience above their need to not be exploited because of our wealth? If we were a coffee farmer living in poverty we would hope that the people buying our coffee in the wealthy nations would have the conscience and the integrity to not only think about themselves and their own family, but to think about us – the people who are literally giving their lives so the wealthy can enjoy the luxury of a hot cup of coffee. Love your neighbor as yourself – How can we turn our back on our neighbors on the other side of the world once we become aware of their suffering?

      I saw this quote recently that say it perfectly – “No man made a a greater mistake then he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” – Edmund Burke

  9. I appreciate the article as well. And I struggle with wanting to spend my money on organic products especially non GMOs but when resources are limited and with all the needs a family has, I keep praying and asking for wisdom. I believe he will provide more this year for me to be able to spend my money more wisely.

  10. Our family has a small coffee roasting business http://www.voyagecoffee.com/ and have several fair trade offerings. Yes, it’s complicated and hopefully the process will continue to improve. We are currently working on getting beans directly from a farm in Haiti that we have researched and feel good about.

  11. In the section of arguments against fair trade, the “Too selective” point says, “free trade,” is that a typo or is it intentional? If it’s intentional, then what is “free trade”?

    Also, my favorite coffee right now is Corvus Coffee. I don’t know if they’re “Fair Trade” but I do know they only source sustainably grown beans.

  12. Great and informational article! It’s so nice to find fair trade and organic coffees produced by companies with an eye on giving back (like Three Avocadoes as you mentioned) – Also check out https://justlovecoffee.com/ as well – fair trade, organic, and donated $350k to assist adoptive families in 2013! Bottoms up! :)

  13. Thank you for this post! Fair trade is a great idea that unfortunately runs into problems in the implementation–as do many things in this world. Our family is actually preparing to head to Guatemala in the near future to assist the indigenous K’ekchi people in establishing businesses (including a direct trade coffee business) to help them out of poverty. They grow excellent coffee but get paid very little for it because of discrimination due to their being indigenous. An exciting part about direct trade is that you can really know the people you are helping and see the impact.

    • Thanks for this additional info about direct trade. I’m inclined to like that route best, although of course I’m still learning. And good luck with your work down there!

  14. Jen Laible says:

    Great information! How we spend our money does matter! You should check out Camano Island Coffee Roasters (www.camanoislandcoffee.com). They are a coffee company with a heart for helping farmers and providing delicious coffee!

  15. Loved this post, Jessica. Thank-you for a balanced discussion! I agree with your conclusion – that even if it’s not a perfect system, it’s still helpful and important. We have to start somewhere, right?

  16. We love Land of a Thousand Hills. http://www.landofathousandhills.com/

  17. I do buy fair trade coffee and for the reasons you listed. First, fair trade may not be perfect but it IS a start. The only way we get anywhere is by taking steps in the right direction. And the real clincher for me is your last point, that ultimately how we spend our money does matter. Is it reasonable for the farmer growing my coffee to paid so little he can barely scrape by? So I can drink cheap coffee? For me the answer is no. I see it as a want versus a need.
    My favorite fair trade coffee is by Three Avocadoes. I order it from their website. Not only is their coffee fair trade/organic but they are a non profit working to provide clean drinking water in Uganda.

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