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Some in the coffee industry portray Fair Trade coffee as a sham, noting that the $1.26 a pound price paid for coffee in such situations is only 5c a pound more than what is normally paid for non-fair-trade coffee. What such arguments ignore, however, is that in the case of Fair Trade coffee, the market price goes directly to the growers, rather than a monopolistic sales company or middleman, who will inevitably give the grower as little as 40c a pound if the farmer has few selling options in their locale.
But Fair Trade isn’t easy on the growers either. In order to be certified as Fair Trade, each coffee farmer must satisfy a list of criteria that includes belonging to democratically governed cooperatives, implementing sustainable, environmentally sensitive growing practices, and more. This can eat up a lot of the extra money being paid to the farmer, though it could also be argued that such rules are in the grower’s own long term interests. The rampant spread of the coffee industry has seen rainforests destroyed to make room for coffee plantations, which affects the migration and feeding patterns of local wildlife such as songbirds, as well as food sources for non-farmers. Closer to home, the tendency of companies like Starbucks and the Starbucks-owned Seattle’s Best to open across the road from each other, or even open multiple outlets on the same block, has seen mom’n’pop independent cafe operators driven out of business.
And what caused the massive drop in coffee prices? The World Bank and NAFTA are usually pointed as the culprits, having encouraged Vietnam to enter the coffee bean market as a means of getting them out of crushing debt. Vietnam did as they were told and duly flooded the market, and the traditional growers watched their livelihood disappear.
But things are changing – slowly. Coffee is, after all, the second most heavily traded commodity after the stuff you pump into your gas tank, so sustainability is an increasingly big issue among those in the halls of power. Several organizations are working towards making the coffee industry – and other agricultural industries – fairer to those at the end of the chain. On such group is TransFair USA, which monitors coffee-growing practices and certifies American-sold product as Fair Trade.
As of the time of writing, the fair trade movement involves 300 democratically-run cooperatives in Latin America, Asia and Africa, and according to reports those groups represent over half a million growers – or 12% of the international coffee growing community.
But not everyone is working towards the goals that Starbucks is slowly cottoning onto (Starbucks customers must specifically request Fair Trade coffee, and they usually have to wait while a fresh pot is brewed.). The amount of product moved by Folgers and Maxwell House dwarfs the amount of coffee sold by Starbucks each year, leaving the Seattle-based chain with only 1% of total worldwide coffee market share, according to company representatives. That said, Americans do consume one third of the world’s coffee supply, so the bigwigs at Maxwell House and Folgers (and those that buy their products) have a lot to answer for.
So what can you do to help? Pretty simple, really – when you go to Starbucks, or Albertsons, or Nabob, or Tully’s, or Safeway, to get coffee for yourself, ask for Fair Trade coffee rather than your usual brew. If you get an odd look, explain what it is and ask when they’ll likely have some in. If the answer is never, go elsewhere, and tell them why you chose to leave.