Sunday, April 02, 2006

irrelevant fair trade?

so i'm a coffee guy. at church everybody asks me all the time about coffee this and coffee that. there are worse things to be associated with, for sure; but still. my life is slightly more than one dimensional.

anyways, one of the things i get asked regularly about is the fair trade movement. now, fair trade items come in all shapes and sizes. but it's fair to say that it is most closely associated with coffee.

the questions are mostly like this...

dude: so, are you like for free trade coffee?

me: uh, do you mean do i like to give away my coffee for free?

dude: huh?

me: oh, you must mean fair trade coffee.

dude: oh yeah, right. fair trade.

[silence]

dude: so...what do you think about it?

me: what? fair trade coffee? oh not much.

dude [with an ecological sermon brewing in his eyes]: what do you mean? aren't you for helping out the little guy?

me [with a reality check sermon brewing in mine]: well, you see the thing about fair trade is that it's not exactly fair nor trade.

dude: [blankly quizzical look on his face]

me: let me explain. fair trade is a term that is designed to get people to think that the "little guy" is somehow being unfairly treated when they sell their coffee to an exporter. the reality of it for people like me, though, who are prepared to pay top dollar for the highest quality/value is that i'm already paying at least fair trade level prices for coffee and that money is already going to help the little guy. i already believe in paying for quality. so if i'm buying fair trade certified coffee all i'm really doing is paying money i could be paying to the farmer, to the fair trade certifying company.

dude: [eyes glazing]

me: the thing is, fair trade coffee to me is not generally the best tasting coffee, either. i see no reason to pay an artificial premium for inferior quality in the cup.

dude: okay. go on.

me: further, if you talk about helping out the little guy then fair trade may not be the path to take anyways. you see, to be certified as a fair trade coffee a farmer has to belong to a local co-op. by joining a local co-op they may get the security of selling power to fair trade people, but the quality of their coffee that they may have worked exceptionally hard on is muddled by tossing their exceptional coffee in with an inferior coffee and blending them all together under the banner of the co-op. no individual farm/farmer can submit a single-origin, single farm coffee to be certified as fair trade. so in essence, unless you're part of the co-op guild, so to speak, you cannot earn fair trade premiums. and many co-ops are like closed coffee cliques that only allow a set number of farms/farmers in, potentially shutting the door to some amazing small farm coffees. so how do you think this helps the little guy?

dude: it...doesn't?

me: you're right.

dude: so what's to be done?

me: ask your coffee purveyor where they get their coffee. if you hear them wax poetic about sourcing high quality importers or even going directly to the country of origin, then you can feel comfortable that they care about the quality and sustainability of their coffee. if not...well, what can be said about that?

dude: they don't like good coffee?

me: it's a rhetorical question, dude.

dude: oh. right.

so that's the skinny on the fair trade coffee movement from my perspective.

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