The richest people in the world drink coffee grown by the poorest. Coffee is more than the beverage many of us consider essential to get us through our day, its an $80 billion+ global commodity, one of the most-traded products in the world, commonly referred to as being traded internationally second only to oil. It employs millions around the world.
The producers of the product are invariably “emerging” and “developing” economies. The Top Eight consist (in order of production) of: Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, India and Ethiopia, Honduras and Peru according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Meanwhile the hot delicious drinkable product is most enjoyed in European First World nations, all of them developed and industrialized. The Top Eight per capita here are: Finland, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and Belgium/Luxembourg (World Research Institute.)
The United States is the world’s largest coffee consumer because of the sheer size of our population. We import 1/3 of the coffee grown around the globe.
But what might seem to be an optimal opportunity for economic parity; poor people in the position to sell something valuable to rich people, is deeply troubling to thousands of international observers. Because profits do not go to those who run the risks of planting and caring for coffee plants, pick and clean coffee beans and dry them. Rather, profits go to international corporations and to retailers.
“I’d like to tell people in your place that the drink they are enjoying is the cause of all our problems. We grow it with our sweat and sell it for nothing”, said Lawrence Seguya, an impoverished small coffee farmer in Uganda, interviewed by Oxfam in 2010.
The international corporations that trade in coffee force poor countries, local brokers and farmers to compete with one another to come to the lowest price. Having only their beans and labor to bargain with, the desperation to make anything at all forces numberless coffee growers world wide to live in poverty and, according to Nick and Mark Francis, co-directors of the fair trade documentary “Black Gold,” millions of growers around the world are in crisis, suffering debt and malnutrition and fast becoming bankrupt.”
The math looks like this: In the United States, coffee sales reached 70 billion in 2002 – while the entire earnings of producing countries that year were only 5.5 billion. Powerful corporate interests devastate the economies and communities in the poor countries, regarding labor and the environment as the least important factors.
The Injustice Was Noticed
The terms “Fair Trade” and “Direct Trade” have evolved over the last sixty-odd years after a number of separate groups in developed countries became concerned about the injustice of farmer’s pay. They formed organizations to challenge the model and the advantage it gave agri-business and multi-national corporations and to focus instead on paying small farmers reasonable prices for their coffee and enabling poor communities to become more sustainable.
In 1997, proponents formed an international umbrella group called Fair Trade Labeling Organizations (FLO) International. The 17-member organization has established criteria which defines Fair Trade for each product certified as Fair Trade – including coffee. Farmers who produce fair trade-certified coffee are generally required to be part of a co-op with other growers and are guaranteed a minimum price for their product.
“Fair Trade is not a charity or a handout; it is simply a process of giving a fair exchange,” says Equal Exchange, a Fair Trade coffee importer in the US.
We should mention that some critics object to the fair trade movement saying that it causes farmers who are destitute and starving to farm for other countries rather than growing the subsistence crops they desperately need and that few environmental protections are required for certification.
For those who endorse Fair Trade, labels to trust are IMO (the Institute for Marketocology) a leading international certification agency since 1990, FLO itself and, according to most parties, Rainforest Alliance.
A controversy has sprung up around an organization that broke away from FLO this spring. Calling itself “Fair Trade USA” its web site presents a social conscience. But critics like Equal Exchange say that Fair Trade USA has compromised its values, for example allowing large plantations to receive its certification as well as products with only 10% fair trade beans. Starbucks and Green Mountain brands plan to align themselves with Fair Trade USA over the original organizations.
This means, “Starbucks, Green Mountain and other coffee companies will be able to become ‘100 percent fair trade’ not because they’ve changed their business practices one iota but because Fair Trade USA has changed the rules of the game,” according to the founder of the Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Company, Dean Cycon.
Wake up and Smell the Coffee – In Salem
Salem Weekly visited the coffee houses in town to see if Fair Trade was available for locals who want to be part of the movement. We learned that Dutch Brothers and Java Crew sell no Fair Trade coffee at all. We learned French Press includes two Fair Trade beans among the several in its “House Blend” and that Starbucks sells only two types (“Indivisible” and “Fair Trade Certified Italian Roast”) – and that both are usually available only in whole bean form.
We also learned that many area coffee houses are committed to ethical coffee sourcing. Justin Doyle, a passionately political barista at Broadway Coffeehouse, is proud of the Direct Trade relationships Stumptown Coffee has with producers.
“We read about different farms finally getting tin roofs because of being paid more fairly, and, in the next few years, even electricity. Farms in Ethiopia used to be at the mercy of local traders, who said their coffee had little value.” Doyle points to an information sheet sent by Stumptown, where such a farmer is interviewed. The farmer writes, “Now we know the truth. Now we are the ones benefitting from our coffee.”
Doyle nods. “I’m proud to be part of something like that.”
At the Coffee House
* The Beanery offers six different Organic Fair Trade coffees in whole bean form
* Clockworks and Broadway Coffeehouse both use only beans from Stumptown Coffee Roasters (of Portland, OR,), which are only fair- or direct trade, a category generally considered more stringently pro-farmer
* Governor’s Cup Coffee Roasters gets all its coffee from Royal Coffee (San Francisco Bay Area,) whose every offering is some degree of Fair Trade
At the Grocery Store
The coffee market in the United States is dominated by major international corporations such as J.M Smucker’s (Folgers, Dunkin’ Donuts and Millstone) and Kraft (Maxwell House, Starbucks, Yuban and Seattle’s Best) so these are the brands that coffee purchaser is most likely to see in the store. None of these giant brands offer fair trade coffee, and neither does Western Family. However five groceries we visited in Salem sold Fair Trade coffees to some extent. Here’s a run down:
* Trader Joe’s – of approximately 25 whole and ground bean packages, five were labeled Fair Trade
* Winco – sells about 50 coffee products. Five of the seven Starbucks offerings are certified Fair Trade by Conservation International
* Fred Meyer – of about 100 whole, ground and bulk products, a number are Fair Trade; four from Kicking Horse, two from Newman’s Own an one of five from Green Mountain. Meyer also carries a store brand (“Private Selection”) organic instant coffee
* LifeSource – Salem’s natural food store carries about 17 bulk beans, and all are Fair Trade certified. It also sells 11 pre-bagged coffees, each of which is Fair Trade certified
* Roth’s – With about 50 coffee selections, Roth’s has quite a few Fair Trade options. Three are from Yuban with the Rainforest Alliance seal, two from Newman’s Own, four from Natural Directions and two from Boyd’s Coffee