If you buy coffee beans or grounds from a local coffee roaster or grocery store, you may notice that some brands of coffee contain labels advertising them as “Fair Trade.” But unlike many other packaging terms like “all-natural” or “organic,” there is actually a difference between coffee that is “fair trade” rather than “free trade.” Most people (including me) assume that it means that the coffee growers aren’t taken advantage of in the selling process, but it’s actually much more involved than you might think.
To understand what Fair Trade coffee means, you have to first understand how coffee growers can be taken advantage of if they’re not operating under Fair Trade.
What’s Wrong with Free Trade?
In America and many other first-world nations, the economy operates under the idea that good products and good workers will naturally fair better than poor products, providing economic growth and wealth for the people involved.
This isn’t the case in other nations (in fact, it’s often not even the case here!). But our abundance of wealth and food tends to protect people who are struggling in America: a grower or artisan in the U.S. may struggle to make ends meet, but that struggle is very different than it would be if he lived in, for example, Colombia.
For example: a U.S. coffee grower and a Colombian coffee grower are both operating outside of the Fair Trade system. A drastic drop in global coffee prices costs them not only their wages but employees and, if they’ve been struggling for years, possibly their entire operation and their farm. But think about the environments they’re both in. It’s much more likely that a U.S. coffee grower can apply for federal or state aid, and it’s very unlikely that his financial crises will mean that he has to starve to death. Not so for the Colombian grower. He and his family could be pushed into malnutrition and even starvation if he can’t make enough to afford food.
To prevent this, he might sell his crops in advance to middlemen who pay below market values. This means that he’ll earn about half the world price, which will eventually drive him deeper into poverty. To save money and make ends meet, he might also resort to drug cultivation instead of coffee. Or he could use forced or child labor and unsafe environmental practices.
Yes, he would save money and possibly keep himself out of poverty. But these methods seriously damage the social and political environment of the area. And that’s the problem with free trade: it often fails to ensure any kind of quality of life for hardworking farmers and artisans around the world. When local farmers in impoverished nations suffer, families, whole communities and environments suffer as well.
What Does Fair Trade Mean?
The goal of fair trade coffee and fair trade market practices in general is to promote healthier working conditions for the farmers and greater economic incentive for coffee producers. In the case of coffee, this means that coffee is purchased directly from the growers for a higher price than free trade. The growers are guaranteed a minimum price for their coffee, which means they don’t have to worry about a plummet in the world prices destroying their livelihoods. And if market prices exceed the minimum that they’re paid, they receive a premium that they share with other local farmers in their co-op.
Fair trade does a few other good things for farmers as well: it ensures that growers sell under stable, long-term contracts rather than selling to manipulative middlemen, it requires that forced labor or child labor never be used, and it allows for the use of ecologically sustainable growing methods.
Some fair trade co-ops also help locals afford health care and well-equipped clinics, schools for local children, and training for the farmers so that they can improve their growing and processing techniques.
Who Regulates Fair Trade?
The primary organizations responsible for fair trade practices are Fair Trade USA and the Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO), which is a non-profit organization based in Germany. FLO has 20 labeling organizations under its wing that work in many countries worldwide to certify many grown and manufactured products, not just coffee. The organization also sets the floor price for grown products, ensuring that global market fluctuations don’t destroy the lives of farmers.
There are also a number of smaller organizations that work to certify fair trade coffee such as Just Coffee Cooperative and Higher Grounds, although the larger companies hold more power in the market.
Where Is Fair Trade Coffee Available?
Fair trade certified coffee is generally priced competitively with specialty or gourmet coffees, so it’s not unreasonable to ask consumers to purchase it. Because of the increasing public awareness about fair trade, vendors such as Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Starbucks offer fair trade certified coffee shops. Many independent coffee shops and roasters also use fair trade coffee (in fact, it can be a selling point with many shop owners) so check with local shops to find free trade coffee.
Make Sure Your Coffee is REALLY Fair Trade
Just because a bag of coffee says that it’s “Fair Trade” or uses fair trade language doesn’t mean that it is. To be absolutely sure that your coffee is Fair Trade, check the bag for either the “Fair Trade Certified” label or the logo of the Fair Trade Federation: