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?

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.

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?