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A lot of folks think of Fair Trade as something that rich people buy. Imagine someone ordering a “Fair Trade, organic, gluten-free, vegan latte,” and who comes to mind? Odds are, it’s not a trucker sitting in a diner—it’s someone in designer clothes and a Louis Vutton handbag. She orders her Fair Trade coffee in a boutique coffee shop in Beverly Hills, with flyers in the window for artisanal yoga mats and doggie orthodontists.
The TV show Portlandia parodied this idea of the “hip, conscious consumer.” A bougie couple in one sketch sits down to a restaurant and asks endless questions about the chicken—is it organic? Cage free? Where was it raised? Eventually, they visit the farm itself before ordering the chicken.
Most of us have neither the time nor the money for this kind of in-depth research—we just want a nice, simple cup of joe. Is that possible with Fair Trade coffee, though? Is it really a “rich person’s drink”? Is it even more expensive than other kinds of coffee?
What do you mean by “fair trade coffee”?
We should start by clarifying what is meant by “Fair Trade-certified.”
Anyone can say “sure, my products are produced fairly.” Indeed, I can’t imagine many companies willing to admit that their products were made unfairly. Imagine the label:
UNFAIR TRADE-CERTIFIED SWEATSHOP CLOTHING. EXPLOITATION GUARANTEED!!!
The phrase “Fair Trade” is more than just a buzzword, though—it refers to a specific, complex process.
Coffee producers undergo a lengthy process of applications, inspections, audits, and interviews to ensure that they meet the Fair Trade standards. These include:
- ecologically sound practices
- farmer-owned cooperative businesses
- Labor standards, including prohibition of child labor
The farmers’ organizations are subject to regular follow-up inspections and audits. Once they get their Fair Trade certification, though, life really improves. Farmers are guaranteed a baseline price for their coffee, even if the market price goes below this. As of 2011, Fair Trade farmers got $1.26/pound for their Arabica coffee, while non-Fair Trade market coffee prices hovered around $0.70 to $0.90.
In addition, farmers receive an extra bonus, the “Fair Trade premium,” that gets invested back into their communities. This premium has been invested into such projects as schools, medical clinics, human rights and women’s organizations, education, food security, roads, infrastructure, and other needs.
There are a few other certification systems which, while not as demanding, do improve conditions some. Rainforest Alliance and Utz are two of the more well-known ones. [LINK TO ARTICLE ON THEM]
Improving conditions is especially important when it comes to coffee, a product that is grown mainly in the Developing World and bought primarily by the Developed World. (Bananas and cocoa are two other big ones.)
The coffee trade has its roots in colonial economics, a world where wealth and resources were bled out of certain parts of the world. As such, there is a long, dark history of exploitation behind it—one of brutal plantations, violent repression, and paramilitary thugs.
To this day, the coffee industry is very exploitative and unequal. Most coffee farmers worldwide survive on between $1 and $3 a day. Many live in remote mountain villages with no electricity or clean drinking water. While the coffee business has continued to thrive—it is worth $100 billion, being the world’s most traded commodity after oil—these profits do not make it down to the farmers who do the hardest work.
Fair Trade is not about charity or donations—it’s about paying a fair price to people for their work. Add to that the ecological requirements of Fair Trade certification, and it becomes an investment in the future of our planet. This is a principle that we can all get behind, in theory.
Still, many consumers will say that they can’t afford to pay more for coffee. “Times are tough as it is. My family needs to scrimp and save however we can, just to pay our rent. Can we really afford to pay more for something like coffee?”
But does Fair Trade coffee cost more, after all?
“Show me the money”
How does the price of Fair Trade-certified coffee stack up against similar coffees on the market?
Let’s start by looking at two comparable coffees from the same company. And what better company to start with than the world’s most well-known chain of cafés?
As of the time of this writing, July 2019, Starbucks currently sells two blends of coffee that are Fair Trade-certified. (See this article for a more in-depth discussion of Starbucks and the Fair Trade movement.) [LINK TO STARBUCKS ARTICLE] Their Italian Roast, which bears the Fair Trade label, has a list price of $0.74 per ounce on Amazon.
A similar dark roast blend would be Starbucks’ French Roast. This lists at $0.52 an ounce on Amazon.
So yes, there is a price difference there. One 12-ounce bag of the Fair Trade coffee would come to $8.88, while a bag of the non-Fair Trade would cost $6.24, a difference of $2.64.
Considering that one bag will produce about 60 cups of coffee, however, the difference is minimal. That’s essentially paying 4 cents more for a cup of coffee, in order to have the peace of mind of knowing it is Fair Trade-certified.
Sometimes, Fair Trade coffee might look like it is much more expensive than other coffees—until you consider the difference in quality and style. Trader Joe’s offers a wide variety of whole bean coffees. A cursory glance at their shelves in 2019, and you might notice that the cheapest one—the Joe Coffee—comes to $0.28/ounce. If the next coffee you saw were their Ethiopian Fair Trade Organic Shade Grown Coffee, at $0.77/ounce, you might think Fair Trade is much more expensive.
However, consider the high ecological standards required for Fair Trade coffee. As coffee which is shade-grown in small batches, without the use of pesticides, it is more comparable to a high-end organic coffee. The product most similar to Ethiopian Fair Trade Organic Shade Grown Coffee, in a version that isn’t Fair Trade-certified, would be another high-quality Ethiopian blend. Trader Joe’s offers an Organic Ethiopian Peaberry Coffee, which costs $0.75 / ounce. That’s a difference of just two cents per ounce.
In fact, among Trader Joe’s low-end coffees, some Fair Trade versions are actually cheaper than the non-Fair Trade ones.
Their Organic Fair Trade Wake Up Blend is $14.99 for a 28-ounce can, which comes to just $0.53 / ounce. The Bay Blend, which is not Fair Trade-Certified or organic-certified, costs $0.54 / ounce—a penny more per ounce!
The difference becomes even more notable if you compare Trader Joe’s Organic Fair Trade Wake Up Blend with some of the “cheap coffees” available elsewhere.
Again at the time of this writing, Peet’s Coffee offers their basic Major Dickason’s Blend, which lists at $0.69 / ounce on Amazon. This is for a blend that, likewise, has no Fair Trade certification or organic certification. And yet, it costs $0.16 / ounce more than Trader Joe’s Fair Trade Wake Up Blend. The latter—certified with the Fair Trade label, grown by farmer coops who are reinvesting in their communities—comes to just under 11 cents per cup of coffee.
Fair Trade coffee is definitely more than just a “rich person’s drink.”
Fair Trade: always worth it
Imagine a world with no labor laws, one where companies openly exploit humans without shame. Sure, most products would be a lot cheaper. The human cost, however, would be terrible. And in a world like ours, with an increasingly connected global economy, none of us can pretend that other countries’ labor rights are disconnected from our own.
Of course, nobody can change the world all by themselves. We can’t transform an entire economic system overnight. Some Fair Trade-certified products can be more expensive, and some don’t even exist yet. And yet, when it comes to a product like coffee, it’s a no-brainer: a very easy way to make a big difference.
And imagine if that change went beyond the individual level. Rather than one person buying one pound of coffee, what if your community as a whole switched over to Fair Trade coffee? Your entire church, school, sports team, PTA group, Rotary Club. Dozens, hundreds of people who consume coffee on a regular basis would have a huge effect.
Of all the ways to express ourselves in this day and age, one of the most significant is in what we buy. We vote every day with our wallets and pocketbooks. Buying Fair Trade is an easy way to vote for change, for a world where everyone has a chance to work hard and get ahead.
And the great news is, you don’t even need to spend more money.