Is Fair Trade Coffee worth it?
Did you know that a small farmer in rural Colombia might get paid $1 a pound for his coffee beans? By the time it reaches us it may sell for $12.00 a pound. Why the difference? Middlemen and powerful distributors. That's something that Fair Trade sets out to remedy.
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/0/0d/TransFair.png" align="left" border="0" height="274" hspace="10" vspace="10" width="200" />Since I go through a lot of coffee, I'll often see Fair Trade Certification on coffees from Starbucks, Terroir Coffee, Peets, you name it. So I set out to uncover whether it is worth it and to recommend it to others.
The price differences appears to be only about 50 cents per pound, but it's difficult to tell because coffee that is Fair Trade Certified will also be organic, grown in the shade, and have other premium-sounding features.
What's the Fair Trade movement? It's an effort to purchase from smaller, family-owned producers who often aren't able to get into large selling cooperatives. They're marginalized. Their products could be great but they just can't sell it profitably because there are too many middlemen. For something to be Fair Trade Certified (and it can range from agricultural products like coffee and bananas to handicrafts like bracelets and bags), its company has to respect high international standards for labor, environment, and business conduct.
In Fairtrade coffee, this is especially relevant because family-owned coffee farms often compete in Colombia, Kenya, Mexico and Vietnam (among other countries) against large industrial coffee plantations that have a lock on the supplier relationships. If you're a small family farmer, it is hard to break in.
In practice, Fairtrade coffee sales give the farmers more sales and at higher prices than they would get if they were trying to break in to the big grower-supplier relationships. As customers, we often get a high quality coffee that has had more labor put into it by a farmer or cooperative that may be working especially hard to build a positive reputation.
A large importer of green coffee beans, Sweet Maria's, actually has its Farm Gate Coffee program that surpasses Fairtrade coffee in standards and that pays growers 50%-100% over Fairtrade prices. It negotiates purchases directly with farmers, cutting out the middlemen. That allows Sweet Marias to pay higher prices to the growers.
What about the taste?
Can I be honest? Better taste isn't the reason to purchase Fairtrade coffee. I've tasted at least 10 different Fairtrade coffees over the years and they don't taste any better than their monocropping counterparts.
Instead, purchase Fairtrade coffee because you're helping small farmers get paid more, their workers receive decent wages, and their farms be better maintained. If you're rooting for the underdog, buy Fairtrade. If you'd like to see a patchwork of farms dotting the countryside rather than one big industrial farm, buy Fairtrade. If you can taste the farmer's dedication and hard work in a cup of coffee, it will be there.
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