Behind the Fair Trade Coffee Movement

fair trade coffee

Anyone who has strolled through the coffee section of a Whole Foods or other higher-end supermarket has been exposed to the language of what we call “industrial coffee marketing”. Terms like “organic”, “shade grown”, and “fair trade” are product descriptors meant to make us feel better about what we’re buying. Being in the unique position of representing a core of 20 independent coffee roasters who are intimately involved in how their beans are sourced, we are often asked about our partners’ bean sourcing practices, and whether they are “fair trade”.

The Fair Trade movement is a complex knot of trading practices, social philosophies, labeling organizations, marketing tactics, and certification standards that in general seek to promote greater “equity” (fairness) in international trade. These practices are generally applicable to developing countries, with an emphasis on the idea of sustainability, and the key notions are summed up in the phrase “dialogue, transparency and respect”.

In the coffee industry at large, fair trade standards are developed primarily by a cluster of four international trade networks, with certification determined by an entirely separate group. In the US specifically, a company called Fair Trade USA is the dominant certifier of “fair trade” coffee, and sellers of coffee can pay them for the right to label their products as fair trade, assuming the standards (cost of labor, sustainable practices, minimum pricing, etc.) have been met for that particular coffee.

The strength of the label, we believe, can be boiled down to the mental image we as consumers paint when we see a fair trade label: we pay a little extra as an individual purchaser, and our notion is that this is reflected in better economic treatment of everyone who’s deserving of it all the way down the supply chain, back to the farmer who tilled the soil. Of course, the truth is infinitely more complex.

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For example, as some critics argue, in some cases exporters may be guaranteed a “fair” price, but neither the farms they represent nor their laborers necessarily benefit. Other critics point out that the economic benefits inherent in the notion of fair trade are largely dissipated through the lengthy and complex supply chain of commodity coffee trade, with large corporations seeing the bulk of the advantage. Still others see fair trade as a marketing practice whose economic focus may or may not have any relevant impact on the actual growers of the coffee.

In the world of small-batch roasted specialty coffee (the Bean Box world), the emphasis is instead on practicing what’s known as “direct trade”. What this means is that our partners regularly visit with and establish long-term, direct trading partnerships with the actual farms from whom they source coffee. There may be other parties involved with the export, transport, storage or other aspects of coffee handling, but the agreement is made between roaster and farm directly. Sebastian Simsch, founder of Seattle Coffee Works, points out three key aspects of direct trade:

  1. Direct trade occurs when “farmer and roaster work together to improve the quality of the coffee that gets to your cup”. In other words, the interests of the consumer, the roaster, and the grower are aligned. Middle men can fend for themselves.
  1. Direct trade is a business model, and not a charity: “As the quality of the coffee improves, the price for the coffee goes up. The price goes up because there will be always a limited supply of truly great coffee, and better coffee generates more demand. All three, grower, roaster, and discerning consumer win.”
  1. Direct trade protects both roaster and farmer from the “vast and speculative fluctuations in the global coffee commodity market, giving both grower and roaster more predictability and security”.

Almost all of the 20 roasters with whom we work regularly spend their time visiting their partners in coffee-growing countries like Guatemala and Ethiopia. Their direct trade efforts allow them to work directly with growers to make the best cup possible. And as we’ve said elsewhere, if you want the best cup of coffee, look for small batch roasters who take pride in directly sourcing their coffee. While “fair trade” labels are a great place to start in the supermarket, if you want the highest quality cup of coffee, behind whose genesis the grower is assured fair economic standing, then look instead for small roasters who work with growers on a direct trade basis.