Good morning, and welcome to another edition of Abe’s Coffee Column.
On 9th May, we marked World Fairtrade Day, a festival of events celebrating Fairtrade as a tangible contribution to the fight against poverty and exploitation, climate change and economic crisis, and their impact on the world’s most vulnerable populations.
I touched on the topic of fair trade in my article ‘Where Should You Get Your Coffee Beans?’ a couple of weeks ago, but promised to devote an entire column to the subject.
So here it is. In this article, I’ll explore whether fairtrade really is the fairest way to buy ethical coffee, help coffee farmers and enjoy high quality coffee, or whether there are more effective ways we can ensure a good price for farmers, while also focusing on quality and sustainability.
It is important to know exactly what coffee you are buying, and the truth behind the labels that adorn every coffee bean bag you buy, if you are to enjoy better office coffee. So let’s find out – is Fairtrade really that fair, and does it guarantee quality?
What is Fair Trade?
“Choosing Fairtrade coffee means helping coffee farmers around the world to get a fair deal.”
Coffee production is extremely vulnerable to weather conditions, climactic changes and disease, which makes it a boom or bust commodity with wild fluctuations in global prices. For those smallholders who depend on coffee growing for their livelihoods, it can therefore be difficult to budget for feeding a family and their farming needs.
Fairtrade appeared as a market standard in 1986 at a time when prices were extremely low and coffee farmers around the world were struggling. It set the tone for socially sustainable coffee, and built a safety net to coffee producing cooperatives the world over.
Fairtrade guarantees an equal price for all farmers growing the same product, but in more recent years, it has become clear that fair trade might not be as fair as was first intended.
Is it Really That Fair?
When we talk about ethical coffee, most people’s first thought is the same – Fairtrade.
The problem with fairtrade, though, is that it is indiscriminate between good and bad coffee and , what’s more, any positive social impact from fairtrade certification is limited by world markets. Its focus is a fair, equal price, which is obviously a great sentiment in theory. In reality, though, this often just means that farmers are not rewarded for the work they put in to growing quality, organic and sustainable coffee beans. Their coffee is just batched in with everyone else’s, at a set minimum price. In 2013, for example, Colombian Mind Arabica was selling for $1.48/lb, while the fairtrade price was set 8c lower.
The fact is, most of the output of fairtrade certified coffee is mass market, poor quality commodity grade coffee that offers no reward for excellence or sustainability. If anything, fairtrade discourages quality and innovation and keeps farmers poor, albeit equally so.
There are other ways to ensure a quality of life, a fair price and a reward for the efforts of a farmer.
A More Sustainable Approach
I remember when I was training as a barista with a roaster in New Zealand. He showed me a bag of green fairtrade coffee beans prior to roasting. The bag was a varied mix of quality beans and black, extremely poor grade beans that should never have made their way into the sack. He is one of many roasters who now focus on quality and taste, over fairtrade certification, and are willing to pay for it. They prefer to build relationships with farmers and encourage them to develop and innovate quality, sustainable coffee to meet the new demands of the speciality coffee market.
“A more sustainable approach would reward excellence. It would be based on quality, innovation, growth and economic progress. It would be accessible to all farmers, not restricted to just co-operatives.”
“Without us committing to providing a reliable and appropriately priced market for the best quality coffees, we can’t expect farmers to go to the extra efforts and lengths that the production of that quality requires.”
Bean providers like Has Bean have been bold enough to refuse to stock fair trade coffee, stating that ‘The only way the speciality market can possibly grow and succeed is via sustainable methods, rewarding coffee farmers for the hard work they put in.’ Encouraging farmers to grade and evaluate their own coffee puts them in a better negotiating position, and encourages innovation. Certifications like the ‘Cup of Excellence’ encourage famers to improve their standards so that they can demand a better price.
Quality is the key to a sustainable future for coffee growers. Not fairtrade.
So next time you buy a bag of coffee beans or ground coffee for the office, look for quality. Read this article to find out more about where you can get your coffee beans.
Feeling like Summer? Join me at 10am next Monday when I’ll share my 3 steps to making refreshing cold brew coffee in the office!