drinking a ground seed concoction that (so the story goes)
was discovered back in the ninth century by a young Ethiopian
goatherder who noted the growing hyperactivity of his flock
after they grazed on the red berries of a local evergreen
tree. He then chewed down a few himself, and went off bouncing
along the landscape in harmony with his hyperactive herd.
This simple African tree would go on to become part of a multi-billion-dollar
worldwide market that today ranks its seeds second only to
oil in U.S. imports. It’s been estimated that 450 million
cups of coffee are consumed daily in this country.
I was introduced to the drink at an early age by my mother,
who always seemed to have a pot of the dark brown liquid brewing.
I remember the invigorating smell, and the intriguing way
the hot liquid perked into the glass knob in the center of
the coffeepot’s lid. By the time I hit 15, I was a confirmed
The coffee I’m drinking right now is a little different than
most I’ve had in the past. It’s organic and shade-grown, reducing
the negative environmental impacts associated with growing
the caffeinated crop. What also makes this coffee different
is the stamp on its bag that reads: Fair Trade Certified.
In the middle of the stamp is an abstract person, half black
and half white, holding what looks like a basket in each hand;
each basket is the opposite color of that side of his or her
body. There is a lot more to coffee than variety and taste.
Coffee is big business, but one of the interesting aspects
of coffee economics is that 75 percent of the product is still
produced by small farmers around the world. However, most
of the profit on coffee is made after it leaves the land of
its harvest. These small farmers are lucky to make 25-50 cents
for a pound of coffee that costs them about 80 cents to produce.
Most of the profit from coffee is made by middlemen, processors,
packagers and brewers. Millions of coffee farmers worldwide
are finding themselves in a severe economic crunch. This coffee
crisis was behind the conflict sparked in Honduras last month.
Back on Oct. 2, the Honduran police let loose with water cannons
and tear gas to break up a demonstration by coffee farmers
demanding government assistance. In Honduras there are over
100,000 growers. The government had promised these farmers
$20 million in loans to get them through the current economic
crisis. When the government didn’t come through as promised,
the coffee cultivators took to the streets—over 500 protesters
Such loans won’t resolve the coffee crisis in Honduras or
other countries in similar straits. The growers would be lucky
if these funds got them through the next harvest. The farmers
would get temporary economic relief, but end up further in
debt. Such loans also put their country at greater economic
risk, increasing the massive debt already shouldered by many
coffee-producing countries. Fair trade might provide a better
solution. I decided to look further into the meaning of the
fair-trade stamp on the bag of coffee I’ve been brewing.
Fair-trade certification began in this country in 1998 when
TransFair USA began offering their stamp, which also now covers
tea and chocolate. The aim of fair trade, according to the
organization, is to “provide low-income artisans and farmers
with a living wage for their work.” They define a living wage
as one that covers “basic needs, including food, shelter,
education and health care for their families.” The group indicates
that a fair wage is “at least that country’s minimum wage”
and “whenever feasible” a living wage. TransFair has established
the following criteria to earn their stamp of approval:
Paying a fair wage in the local context. • Offering employees
opportunities for advancement. • Providing equal employment
opportunities for all people, particularly the most disadvantaged.
• Engaging in environmentally sustainable practices. • Being
open to public accountability. • Building long-term trade
relationships. • Providing healthy and safe working conditions
in the local context. • Providing financial and technical
assistance to producers whenever possible.
The cup of coffee I’m drinking was evaluated against these
criteria. While I don’t know exactly how it scored, the stamp
does indicate the beans passed their fair-trade review. With
the United States consuming about one-fifth of the global
coffee harvest, the potential for domestic coffee buyers to
affect market change is vast.
Through fair trade, the coffee farmer who might have gotten
50 cents per pound under contracts with exploitative middlemen,
now gets more than $1 per pound of beans. Fair trade allows
a larger percentage of the price paid for the coffee I’m drinking
to go to the farmer who produced it. The growers, in turn,
want to maintain this lucrative market relationship and have
an incentive to continue to meet the environmental criteria
required under the certification program. The increased price
farmers receive is offset by cost reductions realized by cutting
out middlemen, so fair-trade coffees don’t necessarily cost
more than those lacking the stamp.
So the next time you’re in the market for coffee, take a few
moments and check for the fair-trade stamp. You can also ask
the coffee shops you patronize to carry fair-trade products.
You might find that with fair trade coffees you’re getting
better value for your money. For more information on fair
trade and vendors offering certified products, click to www.
transfairusa.org. Now, where’s that cup?