A Bean for an Eye: What is Fair Trade Coffee?

Did you know that the word coffee comes from Kaffa, a region in Ethiopia where many people believe coffee beans were initially discovered? Coffee itself has a fascinating history, weaving a story throughout the centuries that includes a strong resistance to the beverage in many cultures as well as prohibition as a forbidden drink in places such as Turkey and Cairo. There are tales that at one time in Turkey, those who were caught drinking coffee a second time—sipping on what millions today drink as a regular morning pick-me-up—were sown into leather bags and thrown into the Bosporus Strait!
From these relatively trying and divisive beginnings, coffee has grown into big business in today’s economy: over 500 billion cups of coffee are served daily across the globe. People aren’t drown for drinking coffee any longer, but other humanitarian concerns have been raised; this time about the coffee growers and their welfare.

What Is the Fair Trade Movement?

In essence, the idea behind fair trade practices stems from the desire to eradicate exploitation within the international trade community and create avenues for the producers to earn better deals for their products. By increasing fairness in the system and improving overall market access, these practices benefit small farms and their workers, helping improve their lives and future circumstances.
The fair trade movement can be traced all the way back to 1790 with “Free Produce Initiatives” that looked to create a slavery-free fruit and cotton trade. The first fair trade label, Max Havelaar, was created in the Netherlands in 1988 and was soon importing fair trade coffee from Mexico.
To qualify as fair trade, growers must abide by sustainable agricultural methods as well as be organized into “democratically run, farmer-owned cooperatives” which undergo independent inspections. In total, there are 360 of these democratically run farms worldwide, many of which are located in Latin America.
In recent years, demand for fair trade products had grown: In 2011 alone, consumers worldwide spent $6.6 billion on fair trade products such as coffee, tea, cocoa, wine and bananas.

A Fair Trade Landmark

In 1997, Fairtrade International was founded in Germany to organize and unify fair trade organizations worldwide with common standards and labeling. It set forth minimum price requirements for producers within developing regions, giving producers and farmers a “safety net” meant to protect against fluctuations in the marketplace. Under the standards, farmers also receive an additional payment, called a premium, which can be invested in infrastructure, education, environmental or other similar projects in the community. In 2002, this organization introduced fair trade marks, which are used on products that meet Fairtrade Standards.
According to statistics from the Fair Trade Resource Network, there are approximately 1.4 million people involved in these practices in more than 70 countries!

Fairtrade International vs. Fair Trade USA

According to a 2012 article in The Nation, Fairtrade International and its former U.S. affiliate, Fair Trade USA, were at odds regarding a difference in opinion about how the global fair trade system should operate. A sticking point for Fair Trade USA (and a reason that they ended their affiliation with Fairtrade International) revolved around their decision to certify coffee produced by small independent farms and on plantations, going against Fairtrade International’s policy of procuring coffee only from democratically run, farmer-owned cooperatives. The issue that’s raised is whether or not these small farmer-owned cooperatives will be able to compete successfully against such corporate-sponsored plantations.
Free Trade USA works with a grand total of 740 companies including Whole Foods, Ben & Jerry’s, Sam’s Club, Costco, Starbucks and Green Mountain Coffee. In 2010, it earned $6.7 million from its certification fees.

How This Affects Labeling

We’re now seeing the effects of these differing viewpoints: while there was once only one certification label for fair trade coffee in the U.S. (from Fair Trade USA) there will now be at least four labels, including those from Fair Trade USA, Fair Trade International, Institute for Marketecology (Switzerland) and FUNDEPPO, a Mexico City-based nonprofit.
Many progressive companies in the U.S, including Just Coffee in Madison, Wisc., are bypassing certification measures and simply constructing their own fair trade brands, posting information on pricing and the specific cooperatives they work with on their websites in order to promote transparency. Admittedly, this is further muddying the fair trade waters in the United States. Yet, despite the above-mentioned squabbles and confusion created in trying to figure out how to create a singular, viable fair trade system everyone can agree on, in the end it’s about fair wages and rewards for the farmers putting in the work.

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