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“I’ll Have a Dark Roast Mocha Latte with Social Values to Go”

By Sandy Westin

Economic Influence of Multi-religious Community

Java. Joe. Brew. Whatever you call it, coffee is a fixture in American culture, a heart-warming part of our national diet. With average consumption exceeding 400 million cups a day, America is the leading consumer of coffee in the world, an $18 billion dollar market that secures 90 percent of its production from the third world. While the cost of an average cup now ranges from $1.25 to $2.50 in the US, not counting higher priced gourmet specialty brews, millions of farmers in countries like Nicaragua, Ethiopia and Sumatra, working year ‘round growing the beverage we imbibe, receive but a tiny fraction of that price for their labor. Too often, the multi-national financial machinery that grinds out our richly flavored brew leaves poverty in its dregs.

Once a product of and major contributor to the worldwide slave trade, labor standards still vary widely among the twelve countries that commercially produce coffee today. Until late in the 20th century, the volume of coffee production and its pricing were regulated by an international coffee cartel.

 Harvesting Fair Trade coffee in El Salvador.

Harvesting Fair Trade coffee in El Salvador.

In recent years, a system of Fair Trade organizations has established certifications and trade channels intended to limit the exploitation of local coffee producers by mega-corporations that previously controlled the product with an iron fist. “The (resulting) Fair Trade Certification label allows farmers and farm workers to escape poverty by providing them with both the skills and the means to compete in the global market of agriculture products” according to OxFam America. “The terms Fair Trade describe the broad socio-economic movement which works to address inequalities in the conventional trade system by building direct relationships between buyers and producers of coffee and other commodities.”

Fair Trade’s aims are hard to argue with: alleviating world poverty, protecting the rights of small-scale farmers in developing countries, and fostering environmentally sustainable farming practices. These goals have attracted religious communities across the nation to embrace Fair Trade coffee as a movement and a fundraising product. Thousands of Islamic, Jewish, Unitarian, and Buddhist along with Christian faith communities include Fair Trade coffee as part of their social action and youth programs. As a result, consumer demand for these products has consistently grown, regardless of the vagaries of the economy.

In twenty years, Fair Trade coffee has soaked into the mainstream of the American economy. Once you could only expect to buy Fair Trade coffee through local faith and social justice organizations. Now it can be bought off the shelf and found in the product lines of major consumer channels like Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and even Wal-Mart. It hardly seems part of the counter-culture anymore.

 Fair Trade coffee being sold at Wal-Mart.

Fair Trade coffee being sold at Wal-Mart.

Fair Trade coffee has “transformed politics into yet another marketable attribute, pitching a clean conscience alongside a clean flavor,” according to Kerry Howley of Reason.com. Questions have been raised about mainstreaming Fair Trade commodities. Is the original intent of aiding local farmers to move beyond poverty being diluted by the same large corporate machinery that originally dictated world prices and production getting in on the game?

Fair Trade’s Growing Pains

Opinions are mixed as to whether the farmers producing coffee are actually reaping a greater share of the profits generated by the higher-priced Fair Trade Coffee than through standard commercial channels. Reports from some cooperatives suggest evidence of the same graft and corruption often endemic in their own country’s government. Cooperative leaders are not immune from temptation. Ben Corey-Moran, president and director of Thanksgiving Coffee, a leading distributor of Fair Trade Coffee, agreed this can happen. “We’re dealing with human beings here, so that’s always a possibility. Over time, however, Fair Trade is putting a mechanism in place in these villages that didn’t exist before – one which can make a tangible change in how they receive benefits for their communities.”

Corey-Moran pointed out Fair Trade’s impact on local producers is more than an increase in their share of profits. “We have always focused on education more than marketing at Thanksgiving Coffee – for both consumer and producer. When they start working with Fair Trade buyers, local farmers are shown how to develop cooperatives that can handle the trades on their behalf. Such organizations as FairTradeUSA and Root Capital have even made it possible for cooperative managers from one part of the world to visit their counterparts in another hemisphere. They learn how to analyze the market available to them, set prices, and plan strategically for their production.”

Cooperatives have a powerful cultural impact on local communities as well, Corey-Moran stated. “Everyone in the community can get involved, including women. Often they had not been given any voice in such matters, so real change in the community results. The farmers learn about democratic processes while building an enterprise they can manage directly. They’re no longer subjected to multiple layers of corporate middlemen between themselves and the consumers of their product. Perhaps an even greater impact is the empowerment these communities experience through Fair Trade – being able to decide for themselves how to make best use of the sales proceeds they receive. They not only distribute profits to the farmers but invest in community-wide projects such as schools and roads they wouldn’t have been able to build otherwise. That has to be factored into the analysis of what’s being gained,” Corey-Moran said.

Environmentalists have asked whether it makes sense to bring Fair Trade coffee from Southeast Asia to the US while Central and South American farmers are trying to find markets for their own produce. Corey-Moran appreciates the complexity of the issue. “It’s true. There is a certain cost to transporting coffee from around the world, and the case can be made for trying to buy product as locally as possible.

“If we (at Thanksgiving Coffee) were to move in that direction, Mexico would be our primary source. There are many small scale producers there, plus even more in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua that produce good coffee beans. And yet, there are many factors that go into the decision of where to buy product, and in what quantities: environmental sustainability, empowerment, trade justice, inclusiveness, and diversity of flavor are just a few. I love great coffee. As a true aficionado myself, I wouldn’t want to let go of those complex blends available by bringing together beans from different parts of the world.”

Ultimately, the success of Fair Trade coffee depends on the preferences and increasingly sophisticated palettes of consumers like Ben Corey-Moran. “What we’re ultimately doing is building relationships. Direct relationships between the farmers who produce the coffee beans and the consumers who enjoy the end product.” Even in times of economic constraints, true java lovers are reluctant to give up their commitment to buying Fair Trade coffee, even when it comes at a relatively premium price. Fair Trade coffee is here to stay.

For More Fair Trade Information