Fairer than Fair Trade

As a conscientious coffee addict, my moral code has often demanded that I find the best means by which to reduce the exploitation that occurs prior to my purchase of each welcome cup, without having to compromise the scale of my dependency.


Until recently, I generally tried to purchase my thrice-daily lattes from places that exclusively brew Fair Trade certified coffee, having been inundated with e-mails and pamphlets from Oxfam over the years about why this would make me a better person.


But the photo of the smiling Peruvian farmer on the packets of Fair Trade coffee does little to convey all the facts. Yet, we are led to believe that the best way to deal with the guilt induced by drinking excessive amounts of coffee is to simply frequent cafes that stock Fair Trade. Easy! Conscience appeased!


Certainly it appears to be a program that was developed and put into action with the best of intentions. However, good intentions are not enough to rectify the dismal conditions most coffee farmers around the world continue to live in.


Unfortunately, the Fair Trade movement is unlikely to ever cater to the needs of enough farmers for it to be the most effective way to ethically satisfy our caffeine dependencies, despite the recognition and awareness it has gained. But, like anything with mainstream appeal, it was only a matter of time before the problems associated with Fair Trade came to light.


Firstly, several factors can dictate a farmer's ability to acquire Fair Trade accreditation, regardless of their adherence to its standards of ethical practice. For example, many farms are excluded from receiving certification because they are either too large, cannot afford the fees for an inspection (which, naturally, are obligatory) or because they are required to join a co-operative to receive Fair Trade certification, and many who own the land on which they are farming coffee beans are unwilling to do so.


Another major concern is the fact that the very premise of Fair Trade is to guarantee a price for farmers, but unlike most industries, and indeed unlike the open market for coffee beans, this price is not determined by the quality of the product.


A report by the Telegraph (UK) in 2008 suggested that many farmers were selling their good quality beans in the open market to acquire a price per pound higher than that required by Fair Trade, and offloading their lesser beans in the Fair Trade market where they receive a reasonable price, unaffected by the quality of the beans and thus providing no incentive to farmers to grow them to a better standard.


As a result, a vast amount of the coffee beans on the Fair Trade market are grown from the Coffea robusta plant, an inferior type that is cheaper to produce. To give some context to its inadequacy compared to the Coffea arabica bean, generally favored by roasters and baristas with a bit of pride in their product, instant coffee usually consists of Coffea robusta beans which are often burnt to strip them of their naturally occurring ‘flavor' (term used loosely) so that they can be enhanced (or, made tolerable) by the addition of artificial flavors.


Furthermore, the Fair Trade price does not fluctuate in accordance with the current demands of the market. Which is great when coffee beans are in abundance and farmers are struggling in a competitive market, but also means that they are unable to demand higher prices when beans are not being produced in great quantities.


Over the course of 2008, Starbucks paid an average of $1.49 per pound of coffee beans. The real question we should be asking is not what percentage of their coffee is Fair Trade certified, but rather why farmers are only receiving $1.49 for an amount of coffee that produces around 50 cups, for which we are paying upwards of $3 per cup.


Such mega corporations can certainly afford to pay more (and, to be fair, Starbucks generally does pay more for its beans than the Fair Trade price, presently at $1.25 per pound according to TransFair USA) and this is the real demand we should be making: that they increase the price per pound that they pay for coffee beans, regardless of its Fair Trade status, to help curb the blatant exploitation currently taking place.


There are always going to be flaws in any program, even those designed to improve the quality of life of those less fortunate than we are. But it seems the best way to ensure farmers receive truly fair prices is to put your money towards good quality coffee and create a greater demand for the beans that guarantee higher prices for the farmers who grow them.


And now, you have an ethical obligation to avoid instant coffee.



— Dunja Nedic is an Australian exchange student. She can be reached at letters@email.arizona.edu


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