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Fair Trade Coffee

The coffee industry has been around for decades. But over the past few years, people  have sought to change the very way it is run. Multiple organizations have been founded with the commitment to better the environment, promote fair pay, and give back to the coffee-growing communities.

You may have noticed this pivot in the coffee culture. It began with fair trade coffee and expanded to organic and Rainforest Alliance certified coffee. While these coffees are more expensive, each purchase goes towards making the earth and local farms better. Wondering how you can help? Or why you should care? Let’s dive into what fair trade, organic, and Rainforest Alliance all mean.

coffee bean cherries in hand

What is Fair Trade Coffee?

Fair trade certified coffees have been extensively audited to ensure they meet certain sustainability and labor standards set forth by the different fair-trade organizations. Each organization sets similar standards aimed at helping improve the quality of life for farming communities in the developing world. They promote fair wages, safe working conditions, community development, and good environmental practices.

Why Fair Trade Matters

Starting in the 1970s, the Fair Trade movement changed the landscape for small coffee farmers in developing countries across the world. As awareness of the poor working conditions grew, the fair trade movement began to advocate for the exploited coffee workers. In many areas, coffee farmers are powerless to advocate for themselves, fair pay, or good working conditions.

By purchasing fair trade coffee, you support a movement that has given these farmers their voices back. The fair trade movement needs coffee roasters, brewers, and shoppers, like you, who are committed to making a positive change in the world.

Why Buy Fair Trade Coffee?

Buying fair trade coffee means that you’ve become part of a system of intentional, equitable practice. This system works to create a stable environment for the, approximately, 125 million people who work in the coffee industry, to thrive in.

Around the world, millions of people are cultivating, harvesting, drying, sorting, packaging, buying, selling, and shipping coffee beans. And those are only the jobs required to get the coffee beans to their final destination. The fair trade movement permeates each aspect of this process, promoting sustainable farming practices, community development, and ethical labor practices (excluding forced and child labor).

The fair trade movement seeks to support the most vulnerable members of the coffee industry. You can join this movement by making informed purchases. Informed purchases can change the way people live and thrive. We hold power in every purchase that we make. Use your power to change others’ lives.

coffee bean farmer

Brief History of Fair Trade

The fair trade coffee movement was a response to the unreliable, and sometimes even volatile, international coffee market. The idea began to take root in the 1940s but didn’t seep into the coffee industry until 1973. Until then, coffee trading was regulated by the International Coffee Agreement of 1962. This agreement sought to maintain stability of exports and coffee prices.

However, in 1973, there was a severe coffee crisis due to a higher supply than demand, and coffee prices plummeted. The Netherlands took initiative and created the first fair trade coffee organization, partnering with a cooperative of small farmers in Guatemala. The fair trade coffee organization artificially raised the price of coffee, providing farmers with a living wage. Over time, several other fair trade entities were created across the world. Today, the fair trade coffee industry is a global movement made up of 3,000 grassroots organizations in over 70 countries.

The International Coffee Agreement is still in effect today, regulating quotas, keeping prices stable, and working to create a secure world coffee market. While this agreement is essential in maintaining the stability of the world coffee economy, fair trade organizations take it one step further.

Fair trade organizations work to create sustainable farming, fair wages, and ethical labor practices. Because of this, fair trade beans cost the consumer more, but ultimately, give more back to the growers.

Fair Trade Organizations

There are several fair trade organizations that create equitable and ethical practices within the international coffee community. In 1998, the four largest fair trade organizations created an informal association known as FINE. Each letter represents one of the organizations.

F – Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO)
I – International Fair Trade Association (now World Fair Trade Organization)
N – Network of European Worldshops (NEWS!)
E – European Fair Trade Association (EFTA)

Their shared definition of fair trade encompasses the vision and goals of the entire fair trade community.

"Fair trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South. Fair trade organizations, backed by consumers, are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade".

This greater vision of ethical practice within the coffee community is worth commending. So, the next time you drink a cup of fair trade coffee, know that it doesn’t simply taste good, it does good.

How Does Fair Trade Work?

Fair trade relies on a network of producers, sellers, and organizations working together to bring about positive change in the coffee industry. This change affects all aspects of the coffee bean’s journey, from seed to shelf. The following is a list of ideals that the international fair trade organizations rely on to cultivate change:

Fair Labor Practices

Workers in fair trade certified farms and businesses labor under safe working conditions, for reasonable hours, and at a living wage. Forced or child labor is strictly prohibited. Fair trade organizations require documentation and audit businesses to ensure compliance.

Environmental Sustainability

Fair trade certified farms use sustainable farming methods, protecting land, wildlife, and ecosystems. Workers focus on water conservation, waste disposal, and protect the land from erosion.

Direct Trade

Direct trade between importers and coffee farmers creates open communication and eliminates upcharges by middlemen. This practice empowers farmers to create ongoing relationships with buyers that benefit them in the long run.

We’ve benefitted from this with our relationship with La Minita in Costa Rica. We’ve learned from each other and grown in our admiration and respect for coffee farmers. And we’ve gotten some really great coffee from the La Minita farm!

Fair Prices

Fair trade certified coffee has a set minimum price at which it can be sold. Oftentimes, the world coffee market can be erratic. When supply outweighs demand, growers don’t even meet the cost of production they’ve incurred. Fair trade standards protect farmers and workers from price swings by keeping standard market pricing for all fair trade coffees.

Community Development

Fair trade business practices raise the overall standard of living for entire communities. Fair trade coffee has an additional premium, due to the higher price of the coffee, that funnels back to the communities. The fair trade standards require this premium to be invested into local community programs, such as scholarships and healthcare development.

This is just a glimpse into the overall benefits of fair trade practices. Such practices are far reaching and generationally lasting, promoting human dignity and environmental sustainability.

coffee bean cherries in hand

What Does it Take for a Coffee Seller to be Fair Trade Certified?

So what does it take to become fair trade certified for coffee producers? Producers and growers must meet rigid standards to mark their products as fair trade certified. Sellers of fair trade items must also be certified, so consumers can be certain the items they purchase are fair trade.

Transparency is the most significant component of fair trade certification for coffee sellers. Fair Trade USA, one fair trade organization, requires quarterly reports of purchases. These reports are audited and checked with fair trade farms for accountability. A portion of the fair trade sales then goes to Fair Trade USA to cover costs of certification maintenance and auditing.

The Coffee Bean Corral - Fair Trade USA Certified

Our commitment to fairness comes with a cost we’re willing to pay. Coffee Bean Corral is a Fair Trade USA certified seller of fair trade coffees. This means that you can trust every fair trade bean we sell is exactly what we say it is.

We are committed to ethical practices, environmental preservation, and providing our customers with a good honest cup of coffee.

Fair Trade - Weighing the Costs

We have to acknowledge that consumers pay a little more for fair trade coffee. Is that extra expense worth it? Let’s weigh the costs.

Benefits of Purchasing Fair Trade Coffee

  • Working against unfair business practices
  • Fighting labor abuses, such as forced labor and child labor
  • Continuing the generational impact of family farming
  • Providing fair pay to all farmers, even when supply is higher than the demand
  • Accessing loans and helping with financing for small farms
  • Giving communities the coffee premiums to help raise local education and health standards
  • Preventing exposure to harmful chemicals
  • Instituting direct trade between buyers and farmers, eliminating price gouging by middle-men
  • Emphasizing environmental sustainability
  • Protecting land, forests, and waterways
  • Protecting fundamental human rights
coffee beans growing

Is Fair Trade Coffee Organic?

Not all fair trade coffee is organic, though roughly half are. Because there’s much overlap in the fair trade certification process and organic certification process, it is easy to become certified in both. While the environmental standards of fair trade coffee are rigorous, organic standards go even further with environmental sustainability practices.

What Does Fair Trade Organic Mean?

Coffees with the fair trade and organic labels (FTO) give customers insight into the production process of a particular coffee.

Coffees bearing these certifications sell for a higher price, benefiting the growers, and the communities in which they live. This accounts for the higher price that consumers pay for FTO coffees.

Why Buy Fair Trade Organic Coffee?

If fair trade organic (FTO) coffee is more expensive, then why buy it? Most experts agree that any trace chemicals on non-organic coffees burn off during the roasting process, so the chemicals used in non-organic coffees don’t really affect the consumer. However, most people who buy FTO coffee have a bigger picture in mind than just their own health concerns.

The coffee industry is the second largest international commodity in the world (following oil). So, the impact of conscientious practices in this industry is enormous. FTO coffees raise the quality of life for individuals and whole communities, and they also promote safe environmental practices. While FTO coffees do come at a greater cost, many consumers feel that the human rights and environmental benefits of buying FTO coffees far outweigh the costs.

What is Organic Coffee?

Organic coffee is grown and processed with only natural fertilizers, instead of artificial chemicals, like pesticides and herbicides. While the availability of organic coffee is a relatively new phenomenon, the practice of organic farming is as old as farming itself.  Organic farming focuses on the renewability and conservation of land and water resources. The goal is to conserve the earth’s valuable resources and provide consumers with a natural product free of chemicals.

Organic Coffee Certification

In the United States, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) sets standards and strictly regulates the organic food industry, including coffee. These standards regulate every step of the process, from seed (non-GMO), to fertilizer (natural), to processing (separate from non-organic coffee). Moreover, certified organic products come from farms that are sustainable in all ways. Farms that comply with these higher standards are then able to sell their coffee at a higher price. Consequently, consumers pay a higher price to support these sustainable, environmentally friendly farming practices.

Why Should I Buy Organic Coffee?

While organic green coffee beans cost a little more, they are worth the slight increase in price. Many people choose to buy organic coffee for personal health choices and/or environmental sustainability.

While most experts agree that the chemicals used in non-organic coffees burn off in the roasting process, consumers often feel differently. Many consumers prefer not to chance it, valuing the health benefits of an organic diet over the additional price.

The other main rationale for buying organic coffee is to support environmental sustainability. Some buy organic coffee out of a concern for the environmental damage caused by non-organic farming practices. Whether it’s for personal health or environmental reasons (or both), the organic coffee market is experiencing an upward trend in the United States.

What Does Rain Forest Alliance Certified Mean?

The Rainforest Alliance (RFA) is an international organization creating lasting change in the conservation of natural resources and the treatment of local communities. The goal of the Rainforest Alliance is to unify businesses, farmers, consumers, and forest communities in the effort to create sustainable, equitable, environmentally conscious business practices. Products, such as coffee, that bear the RFA label are produced in accordance with the high standards that uphold the ideals of the Rainforest Alliance.

Why Should I Buy Rain Forest Alliance Coffee?

The RFA seal gives consumers confidence that their coffee purchase supports local communities and environmental sustainability. The long-term result of buying RFA certified coffee is the protection and “right use” of lands, including rainforests and other forests, supporting small sustainable farms and farmers, and increased stability in local, coffee-growing communities. Looking for the RFA seal is one simple way that you can support these ideals.

There is power in every dollar. When those with the power make decisions for change, the world is made better. The decision is yours. Is fair trade coffee worth it?

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