Sustainability is about ecology, economy and equity.- Ralph Bicknese

The Coffee Obsession (Part 2) – What is fair trade really about?

Along with knowing what kind of milk and how much syrup is in our specialty drinks every morning, we should be even more concerned about where the beans that create those delicious nutty undertones come from. Some of the biggest regions that produce coffee are Central and South America, Central Africa, and Southeast Asia. Many countries’ economies are wrapped up in the global trade of coffee.

A good place to start in learning about coffee beans is the different types. There are two kinds of beans that are used most often for making coffee, Robusta and Arabica. The differences in these two relate to their flavor, growing conditions, and price.  Robusta has a stronger, harsher taste with grain and peanut overtones and can have twice as much caffeine as Arabica beans. These beans however, are considered lower quality when compared to Arabica beans in most cases. There are a few growers of Robusta that are higher quality and used in espressos for their rich flavor and caffeine content.

Arabica beans are common in pricier coffee circles, where Robusta is common in the grocery store. Arabica beans are more acidic and tend to have the fruitier tones that can be associated with specialty coffees. The two different kinds of beans are grown in different locations as well. Arabica beans grow at higher altitudes and take longer to produce than the Robusta beans which are very hearty and grow quickly.  This information was all found at but there are many other sites out there. The types of beans grown determine the price that growers can sell them at and how much and how fast they can grow.The bigger question for me has been not just where these beans come from, but how they’re grown and the story of the farmers behind them. On a recent trip to the Dominican Republic, I was able to go up into the mountains and see coffee plants first hand and learn about how the seasons of coffee affect the lives of the people in the towns. This experience and a conversation with my roommate got me thinking about fair trade coffee. My roommate read the book The Taste of Many Mountains by Bruce Wydick, which looks at the downfalls of fair trade, based on a research study done in 2007-08 funded by USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and conducted by University of San Francisco in Guatemala. There are many sides and factors that affect how fair trade works in different countries.

The task of being fair trade certified can be beneficial and detrimental to farmers in different ways. My perception of fair trade was that it helps the farmers get paid more for the coffee they grow, and this is what fair trade organizations want people to believe. From Grounds for Change “Fair trade certified coffee directly supports a better life for farming families in the developing world through fair prices, community development, and environmental stewardship.” This all sounds pretty great to me, but one of the researchers who visited Guatemala Seth Morgan, stated “I was surprised to find out that fair trade was not working as advertised, or at least not reaching the intended target population (small growers)”.  There are many sides to free vs. fair trade in the coffee industry. Fair trade supporters will argue against free trade, and state that fair trade is better, but the truth is that there are still shortcomings in both models.

Fair trade certification for coffee requires farmers to join co-ops, meet specifics in working conditions, and meet specifics regarding environmental standards as well. Despite these standards and the difficulty that small farmers may have meeting them, there has been significant growth in the fair trade market since it began.  In 2009, fair trade coffee accounted for 4% of the 14 billion dollar coffee market in the United States.  It also continues to grow in the UK, so it is important to think about if fair trade is really doing all that it can, or if it is just making it more difficult for farmers to earn a living wage because of all the hoops they have to jump through. Another factor that Wydick brings up is the need for coffee to be organic. This is another fight farmers have to make in their production. Yes organic foods are great, but that means there will be more beans lost to pests or spoilage during transportation before roasting. Losing beans means losing money for farmers and decreases their marginal profit from selling their coffee fair trade.

One of the challenges relating to fair trade is the confusion for consumers. Even after a few hours of research for this post I’m still not sure what I think about fair trade. I hope that this post provides somewhere to start on your research and thinking about both sides.  Listed below are some of the websites I looked at:

The Independent            Standford Social Innovation Review        The Fair Trade Coffee Company

International Trade Centre          The Davis Enterprise       GreenBiz             Justmeans

Yale School of Management

Look out for a post following this exploring some ways people have searched to improve trading coffee.

Author: Lauren

SPU Student

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