What exactly is organic fair trade coffee? Does such a thing even exist? And if so, why should you choose it? How do you know for sure that your coffee really is “fair trade”? “Fair-trade”, when applied to coffee, means generally that the coffee is certified by a third party as having met certain standards of ethical and sustainable production. So all you have to do to be sure you’re consuming ethical and fair trade coffee is to look for that special fair trade certification seal, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
There are MULTIPLE fair trade certification agencies, and some coffee producers will claim they are organic and “fair trade” when upon closer inspection, they meet only the very loosest definition of the term. At least three separate certification agencies for Fair Trade claim that they are the “standard”. Each agency, however, has VERY different requirements to earn their badge.
Without getting into the lengthy history of fair trade certification, suffice to say that some certification agencies don’t look at child labor, or environmental impact, or worker’s rights. Some require only a very low percentage of fair trade ingredients in the products they certify and don’t look at the complete supply chain to confirm compliance. Others have somewhat vague standards which are challenging for the consumer to understand. Still others have no particular mission to assist and empower small farmers.
The practice of placing a “fair trade” label on coffee that really isn’t particularly fair trade has been termed “fair washing”, much as the term “green washing” applies to companies that stick an “eco-friendly” or “natural” label on their product when it is in neither. (Take a look at the post Best All Natural Laundry Detergents for more evidence of such green-washing.) One of the purposes of this blog is to bring awareness to how often such misleading labeling and packaging occurs. And the Fair Trade label is no different. It’s important to do your research before simply relying on a Fair Trade label.
So without researching a thesis-worthy amount, how do you know which certification you can trust? The Fair World Project was begun in 2010 by the Organic Consumer’s Association to protect the integrity of the fair trade movement. Their mission is to evaluate each certification agency and their standards, and clarify for the consumer exactly what each label really means. So they do the work for you, serving as the “watchdog” of the fair trade movement. They also push certification organizations to raise their standards when needed. They evaluate quite a few organizations, but the three most prominent labels they monitor are:
Fair Trade USA
Fair for Life IMO
Overall, the label that the Fair World Project approves of most consistently is the last one, the orange Fair for Life label. Why?
- Fair for Life supports small-scale farmers above all else. The other two labels do NOT distinguish between small-scale producers and commercial operations.
- Fair for Life-certified products follow good environmental and labor practices. The other two labels have no policies in place to restrict eligibility for companies that have a history of labor or environmental abuses.
- It is the only label that requires 70% fair trade ingredients to earn the fair trade label on multi-ingredient products. The goal is to move this percentage up over time.[ETA added 5/17/2016: I was recently contacted by a representative from FairTrade America and would like to make a clarification. According to their website, FairTrade America, for “single ingredient products …100% of the product [must] meet the Fairtrade Standards. For composite products…like cookies, ice cream and chocolate bars, all ingredients that can be sourced as Fairtrade must be Fairtrade…And at least 20% of the content must be Fairtrade certified. Many companies go above and beyond that.” The source of my information, Fair World Project, has not updated this information, so I am doing so here.]
[My note added 5/17/16: Keep in mind that for these organizations certify more than just coffee. For FairTrade America, they certify cosmetics as “fair trade”, and the percentage that must be fair trade-certified to receive the FairTrade America seal is tiny, at just 2-5%. Also, remember that their minimum threshold of 20% fair trade ingredients is nowhere near the threshold required for the Fair for Life label, which is “the first certifier to formally require a front panel percentage disclosure if less than 70% of the total ingredients are certified“. Finally, take a second look at the “bad actors” that FairTrade America certifies below: Nestle, Dole and Kraft. My hope with this post is to encourage you to not only buy truly fair-trade and organic, but to also support small independent coffee farmers. FairTrade America does not do this, at least not exclusively.]
To get a sense of the “values” of the seal, let’s take a look at which “bad actor” companies received which fair trade labels:
FairTrade America certifies products from Nestle, Dole and Green and Black’s Chocolate produced by Kraft. Ugh. Fair Trade USA certifies products from Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Hershey. Double-ugh. Fair for Life certifies NO “bad actor” corporations at all as they do not meet the standards listed above.
Why is this important? According to Fair Trade Project: “Fair trade at its core is a movement centered on small-scale farmers and producers who are organized democratically. Fair trade markets should be reserved for these farmers…[as] larger scale farms already have an advantage in the marketplace…” This is the main reason I do not use the first two marks above–it is not part of their overall mission to support small farmers. Period.
Now that we’ve learned a little about fair trade certification, can we figure out which organic coffees are best to buy in order to support the movement? I’ve narrowed the brands that fit the criteria down to five which Fair Trade Project considers to be “mission-driven” in their promotion of small-scale farmers and the true meaning of fair trade. They’re also readily available online.
Mayan Warrior Coffee by Cloud Forest Coffee Company
Learn more about this company at their website at Mayan Warrior Coffee. The people who grow this coffee have no other income other than that earned selling their coffee. Each farmer owns only 7 acreas or less at an elevation of 4,000 feet. The farmers use only organic, sustainable techniques and produce only small batches of coffee at a time so as not to over-tax the land. They also offer Black and Tan Ground Mayan Warrior Coffee and Wine Infused Mayan Warrior Coffee for something a little different.
One of the many reasons I like this company is its back story. Some guy from New Jersey was visiting Mexico, came upon this farm, and ended up going home and started a company to promote it and sell it on places like Amazon. Pretty cool, huh?
Equal Exchange (www.equalexchange.coop) is a worker cooperative whose farmer members are considered partners in their mission. They have a strong commitment to the “real” fair trade movement and refuse to lower their standards.
Their products are delicious and priced competitively and they also produce chocolate..the perfect complement 😉
Kickapoo (www.kickapoocoffee.com) is a small organic coffee producer that focuses on sustainability and fair wages.
Last summer, they completed the construction an 80 panel solar array which provides all the electrical needs for their entire roasting facility. That’s eco-friendly!!
Larry’s Beans not only makes great, organic and ethical coffee, they also have a strong commitment to reducing their carbon footprint. From collecting rainwater for reuse to solar powered flooring at their plant, they continually work at reducing their energy use. They are a founding member of Cooperative Coffees, a group of coffee growers working together to promote small coffee farms. All their coffee is shade grown and organic. Larry’s Beans is also a founder of www.fairtradeproof.org, a site designed to increase the transparency of fair trade and allows consumers to track the path from grower to roaster. Very cool.
Okay, I hope this post has given you some insight into what Fair Trade really means in its undiluted form, and how to watch out for ‘fair-washing’ of your coffee. Because coffee is often grown in areas with higher levels of poverty and few income-producing options, it only makes sense from an ethical and ecological point of view that the people who live in these countries should be adequately compensated for their work.
In addition, purchasing coffee from smaller producers allows you the consumer to more readily appreciate the impact your purchase can make on the lives of others. The money you pay for these coffees goes directly to the farmer, inasmuch as that is possible. Because there is no middleman, no giant corporation taking a chunk of the money while paying the farmers a pittance, your coffee purchase can truly be a way for you, as a consumer, to positively affect the lives of hard-working farmers around the world.
Please make the right choice…and step away from the Starbucks 😉
If you are interested in studies which demonstrate the effect of the rise in fair-trade coffee on the farmers, please visit this link. The articles DO cost money; however, most provide sufficient abstracts that you can get an idea of the conclusions.