java justice?
April 10, 2007 8:11 PM   Subscribe

why should i drink fair trade coffee?
posted by brandz to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's up to you. Did you google and read about Fair Trade before posting?
posted by edgeways at 8:20 PM on April 10, 2007

Asking google your question turns this page up. This is the page I would have linked anyway, had I thought you at least tried to research on your own.
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:20 PM on April 10, 2007

Why not? It's not going to change the world, but it's unlikely to hurt it more than buying unfair trade coffee, and it might help. Plus, it tends to be shade grown, which means it tastes better.
posted by carmen at 8:31 PM on April 10, 2007

Because it is tasty. :)
posted by nyxie at 8:36 PM on April 10, 2007

Best answer: I'm guessing brandz means, "Convince me to drink FT coffee." As carmen says, it won't change the world, but I figure I have some power to do a little good or bad with my dollar, so I choose to do good. Plus, when I drink it I can feel better than other people. I've also been buying FT chocolate for baking at my house. If it does nothing else it makes me more deliberate about what I eat, which is never a bad thing.
posted by monkeymadness at 8:39 PM on April 10, 2007

Upon reading cowbellemoo's link, I have to wonder if fair-trade helps cause an overall drop in price by forcing companies to purchase "normal" coffee at even cheaper rates to maintain their bottom line.
posted by jmd82 at 8:45 PM on April 10, 2007

Pass up the fair trade and go for organic. Just because farmers in Argentina are getting a decent price for their coffee beans doesn't mean they aren't pouring gallons of pesticides on it. Better yet, reach for the Kona coffee grown on the Big Island of Hawaii or perhaps other domestically produced coffee beans.

If you care deeply about ethics, fair trade is the way to go. If you care about the environment (i.e. fossil fuels causing global warming), fair trade is NOT the way to go. How much oil does it take to get coffee from Ethiopia to Boston?

My advice is to go to Wild Oats/Whole Foods/Sunflower Market and buy organic coffee from the northwest. It's delicious and there's something about giving money to US farmers that makes me happy.
posted by hammerthyme at 8:48 PM on April 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

hammerthyme, there's no way that coffee is being grown by US farmers in the Northwest. Coffee is a tropical crop.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:04 PM on April 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

1. If you're enjoy a product such as coffee enough to know that there are different 'versions' of it (blends, regions, fair trade, organic, etc.), then you most likely want higher-quality versions of it.

2. The best coffees(the higher quality versions) come from areas where working conditions are very different from those in the United States. With the exception of Hawaiian Kona coffee, if you want good coffee, you will be buying it from outside the U.S.

3. Product quality will only be maintained so long as it is profitable for the producer to be do so. If producers are more focused on producing enough quantity to be able to make ends meet, they will not be able to focus on quality as effectively.

4. Thus, by buying fair trade coffee, you improve the living conditions of the producer, the quality of the product you are receiving, and the market itself(better wages = more competition. Less focus on quantity, more focus on quality = lower chance of supply exceeding demand by too great a ratio.)
posted by ElfWord at 9:13 PM on April 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

oneirodynia, I've been mislead! I just realized it's ROASTED in Oregon, not grown there. Kona coffee is still great, go!
posted by hammerthyme at 9:16 PM on April 10, 2007

Coffee is one of those crops in which there are enough middlemen, and enough profit, that the noble goals of organizations like Fair Trade Certified are easily co-opted. If you hear anything about such efforts, you tend to hear the positives, but as it is in no one's interests that you hear of their failures, it's reasonable to expect that you don't hear of failures, mis-branding, and co-opted shipments. Can you, independently, verify that the java in your cup is unadulterated Fair Trade product, or must you rely on the representations of others whose trustworthiness you can not verify to suggest that you're doing the moral thing?

Save your money, drink market coffee that tastes good to you, and put the savings into responsible social action of your choice, for which there is direct accountability.
posted by paulsc at 9:17 PM on April 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

You should drink fair trade coffee if you want to help your coffeeshop make more profit. Only a miniscule sliver of the additional cost ends up in the hands of the people it's supposed to help. See also.
posted by commander_cool at 9:20 PM on April 10, 2007

Equal Exchange is a fairly traded, organic coffee co-op. I've been drinking their coffee for years, through the interfaith coffee program at my UU church. The product is very nummy and well-priced. I've also seen it at local health food stores -- you may have to look or contact a participating church.
posted by luminous phenomena at 9:34 PM on April 10, 2007

Maybe I'm just a lousy shopper, but I just checked prices on Fair Trade coffees, and they were all cheaper than what I'm used to paying.

I even checked on Starbucks, to see if I was just used to outrageous prices, and even there, they had Fair Trade for $10.50, but most of their coffees sold for more than that ($13-16).
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 9:38 PM on April 10, 2007

Can you, independently, verify that the java in your cup is unadulterated Fair Trade product, or must you rely on the representations of others whose trustworthiness you can not verify to suggest that you're doing the moral thing?

That's the exact purpose of certifying bodies. I can't independently verify much on my own, hence the existence of groups to do it for me.
posted by monkeymadness at 9:40 PM on April 10, 2007

Kona is only "domestic" if you're American, and Kona could never, ever, ever supply the WORLD'S coffee market.

I buy beans that are purchased at above fair-trade levels (for me, those are roasted at Hines Public Market roasters in Vancouver via Phil & Sebastian Coffee in Calgary), shade grown, and organic. Considering that even this extravagance costs be about $1 per double espresso, it's an expense I can accept. Coffee is, even at the high end, an affordable indulgence, and most people can afford the farily traded variety. Fair trade does no harm and helps the farmers, even presuming the "sliver" that commander_cool's blogger fails to quantify, so yeah, you shoud buy it.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:41 PM on April 10, 2007

You shouldn't. Since the article (Voting with your trolley, 2006-12-07) is behind a paywall, here is the part on fair trade:
What about Fairtrade? Its aim is to address “the injustice of low prices” by guaranteeing that producers receive a fair price “however unfair the conventional market is”, according to FLO International's website. In essence, it means paying producers an above-market “Fairtrade” price for their produce, provided they meet particular labour and production standards. In the case of coffee, for example, Fairtrade farmers receive a minimum of $1.26 per pound for their coffee, or $0.05 above the market price if it exceeds that floor. This premium is passed back to the producers to spend on development programmes. The market for Fairtrade products is much smaller than that for organic products, but is growing much faster: it increased by 37% to reach €1.1 billion ($1.4 billion) in 2005. Who could object to that?

The GuardianIt makes me feel so good
Economists, for a start. The standard economic argument against Fairtrade goes like this: the low price of commodities such as coffee is due to overproduction, and ought to be a signal to producers to switch to growing other crops. Paying a guaranteed Fairtrade premium—in effect, a subsidy—both prevents this signal from getting through and, by raising the average price paid for coffee, encourages more producers to enter the market. This then drives down the price of non-Fairtrade coffee even further, making non-Fairtrade farmers poorer. Fairtrade does not address the basic problem, argues Tim Harford, author of “The Undercover Economist” (2005), which is that too much coffee is being produced in the first place. Instead, it could even encourage more production.

Mr Bretman of FLO International disagrees. In practice, he says, farmers cannot afford to diversify out of coffee when the price falls. Fairtrade producers can use the premiums they receive to make the necessary investments to diversify into other crops. But surely the price guarantee actually reduces the incentive to diversify?

Another objection to Fairtrade is that certification is predicated on political assumptions about the best way to organise labour. In particular, for some commodities (including coffee) certification is available only to co-operatives of small producers, who are deemed to be most likely to give workers a fair deal when deciding how to spend the Fairtrade premium. Coffee plantations or large family firms cannot be certified. Mr Bretman says the rules vary from commodity to commodity, but are intended to ensure that the Fairtrade system helps those most in need. Yet limiting certification to co-ops means “missing out on helping the vast majority of farm workers, who work on plantations,” says Mr Wille of the Rainforest Alliance, which certifies producers of all kinds.

Guaranteeing a minimum price also means there is no incentive to improve quality, grumble coffee-drinkers, who find that the quality of Fairtrade brews varies widely. Again, the Rainforest Alliance does things differently. It does not guarantee a minimum price or offer a premium but provides training, advice and better access to credit. That consumers are often willing to pay more for a product with the RA logo on it is an added bonus, not the result of a formal subsidy scheme; such products must still fend for themselves in the marketplace. “We want farmers to have control of their own destinies, to learn to market their products in these competitive globalised markets, so they are not dependent on some NGO,” says Mr Wille.

But perhaps the most cogent objection to Fairtrade is that it is an inefficient way to get money to poor producers. Retailers add their own enormous mark-ups to Fairtrade products and mislead consumers into thinking that all of the premium they are paying is passed on. Mr Harford calculates that only 10% of the premium paid for Fairtrade coffee in a coffee bar trickles down to the producer. Fairtrade coffee, like the organic produce sold in supermarkets, is used by retailers as a means of identifying price-insensitive consumers who will pay more, he says.

As with organic food, the Fairtrade movement is under attack both from outsiders who think it is misguided and from insiders who think it has sold its soul. In particular, the launch by Nestlé, a food giant, of Partners' Blend, a Fairtrade coffee, has convinced activists that the Fairtrade movement is caving in to big business. Nestlé sells over 8,000 non-Fairtrade products and is accused of exploiting the Fairtrade brand to gain favourable publicity while continuing to do business as usual. Mr Bretman disagrees. “We felt it would not be responsible to turn down an opportunity to do something that would practically help hundreds or thousands of farmers,” he says. “You are winning the battle if you get corporate acceptance that these ideas are important.” He concedes that the Fairtrade movement's supporters are “a very broad church” which includes anti-globalisation and anti-corporate types. But they can simply avoid Nestlé's Fairtrade coffee and buy from smaller Fairtrade producers instead, he suggests.
The article is very interesting, and well worth registering for a trial with a mailinator address. It also covers organic food (not healthier, not more environementally friendly) and local food (unefficient protectionism).
posted by stereo at 11:30 PM on April 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

It's not quite the same thing, but I see every Fairtrade logo as a little reminder of the trade justice movement which has the potential to make a much bigger difference by promoting the abolition of tariffs and subsidies which make it impossible for the developing world to compete. The widespread adoption of Fairtrade sends a signal to politicians that people really do care about these issues.
posted by teleskiving at 1:19 AM on April 11, 2007

stereo, I think that article is fairly poor. I'm no economist, but here are my first thoughts:

It starts with a standard "subsidies are bad" argument and that only holds if you think that all subsidies are bad and that the market is a level playing field (which it so fucking blatantly isn't). The market might be the right mechanism to regulate these complex systems if left unfettered, but given the trade subsidies and tax breaks the first world give their own countries this is just horseshit.

Then it moves onto a nitpick about the way certification is currently carried out: not a valid argument against fairtrade per se, just against the current validation scheme (and mentions people who use different validation schemes).

Then it says the quality is worse. This is a subjective argument, and also depends where you sit on the coffee quality spectrum - I know I am fussy enough to only drink a few fairtrade brands, but I also buy my coffee in a supermarket or food coop not a coffee shop. And I know that those brands are amongst the best available there. If you're a single estate coffee rolled on the thigh of a virgin, roasted over golden coals and hand ground by pygmies type of person, well, maybe there are more important things to worry about.

The final argument is that it is an inefficient way to get money to people who need it. Well duh, it's not a charity, it's a marginally better way to buy coffee. If I thought that my fairtrade purchases were enough to assuage my conscience, I'd not also be donating people who really can make a difference.

My take? Fairtrade is not perfect, but it is a mechanism for getting a little more money to the people that actually produce the stuff you're eating and drinking, and it is putting pressure on the multinationals to behave in a slightly less dastardly way.
posted by handee at 1:19 AM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Fairtrade Foundation, which is the certifying body for fair trade goods in the UK, has a good website explaining the concept of fair trade. On top of being paid a fair price (less affected by market instability, so farmers can plan ahead with the reassurance that they will get enough money), fair trade (at least where the Foundation is concerned) involves paying a small premium on top of the money received for goods to help fund community development - schooling for children, maybe, or latrines, or a well. This is on top of all the other benefits outlined by others here - pressure on corporations, awareness of the current unfair trade rules amongst consumers, better quality coffee, etc.

Oxfam's Make Trade Fair also has a good site, including some excellent research reports which might address any concerns you have. In particular, they have a report on the current coffee trade and what's wrong with it that you may find interesting. Oxfam's take on fair trade is that it's a springboard for getting changes in world trade laws to acheive trade justice.
posted by terrynutkins at 2:08 AM on April 11, 2007

Stereo's reference has it just about right-- the entire enterprise is predicated on some pretty unsound economics. Fair Trade buyers prop up a small portion of a market that is inherently inefficient (it sounds kind of heartless, but that's the entire premise of capitalism: if you're not making enough money selling your coffee beans to maintain your coffee plantation, maybe you should switch to something whose price hasn't been driven down by a glut in the market), which encourages other farmers to get into (or at least, not get out of) coffee farming. Meanwhile, the other 95% of the coffee-growing population still has to negotiate contracts with your standard evil faceless commercial conglomerates; meanwhile, no one is getting out of the coffee market, an unprofitable business venture, because they see that some people are making a pretty good living at it. Thus, the amount of beans being sold grossly exceeds the quantity that would impart a fair price being paid, and everyone else gets poorer.

IANA economist, but when I took intro econ freshman year, the professor had us all write essays deconstructing Fair Trade as an institution, because it's so misguided that it makes the perfect strawman for a bunch of mouth-breathing undergrads. I hate rural third world poverty as much as the next guy, but when the premise for your idea is:

There is a crisis destroying the livelihoods of 25 million coffee producers around the world. The price of coffee has fallen by almost 50 per cent in the past three years to a 30-year low. Farmers sell at a heavy loss while branded coffee sells at a hefty profit. The coffee crisis has become a development disaster whose impact will be felt for a long time.

(from the "report on the current coffee trade" link provided by terrynutkins above), it just proves that you so fundamentally understand basic economic principles that I shouldn't be giving my money to you.
posted by Mayor West at 5:31 AM on April 11, 2007

If you get a chance, check out the PBS show "Independent Lens" and the documentary "Black Gold." I happened to catch it last night and it is about this very subject. Very enlightening and made me change my mind about a few things.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 7:08 AM on April 11, 2007

Fair Trade has its problems, but they are not what Mayor West and stereo (and maybe others) have pointed to. Coffee is not bought in a "free" market in the Adam Smith sense. Coffee crops are purchased at a fixed price before the crop is planted. This means that some years the overall cost of production may be lower than the value given to the crop. When this happens, the producer may have to go into dept to the buyer, perpetuating the cycle, and limiting their ability to diversify. Before Fair Trade companies, there were no other buyers, and so coffee producers didn't have the option of selling to someone who pays more than the cost of production. Fair Trade coffee buyers attempt to pay more than the cost of production, which is why it's termed "fair."

This is quite simply not a "free market." Producers are not free to leave the market and they are not able to set the price for their good based on demand. Thus, arguments that Free Trade distorts the market are simply irrelevant.

Fair Trade coffee is often shade grown, which means that producers can grow food crops or other cash crops as shade crops, allowing them to diversify.

The problems with Fair Trade have to do with 1) the expense of certification for the producers; 2) the management of the village development projects; and 3) its potential in satisfying coffee consumers that they've done enough and thus subverting their will to learn about and actually change the international agreements that hold small scale producers hostage to a modern form of merchant capitalism.

The reason I said "why not" above is because no one knows what Fair Trade might do. After a few years studying international development and anthropology, I suspect that it won't do much of anything, but it's unlikely to cause more harm than not, and it might help some people. And that's about the maximum you can expect from trying to change the world by buying things.

If you like it, buy it. If you care about the issues that coffee producers face, then use it as a starting point to try to affect some change in the world.
posted by carmen at 7:22 AM on April 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

Hang on... someone set me straight here... FT buyer says, "hey, coffee farmer. I'll pay you a little more for your coffee if you pay your workers a living wage and give them respirators when they're spraying pesticides." Farmer says, "ok" Transaction ensues, FT people watch to make sure farmer complies, Yuppies feel better knowing that the people picking their coffee aren't killing themselves to do it. All this market saturation talk has me confused. Are the requirements of FT farmers not being enforced? Seems to me if I buy FT, that logo assures me that FT business/labor practices went into this product, and the lowest person on the supply totem pole is living a little better.
I get it, there are too many people growing coffee, but are you guys saying that FT is motivating nonFT farmers to stay in the coffee business and keep banging their heads against the wall, and that the non FT workers are earning less because FT exists? Waa?
posted by sauris at 9:46 AM on April 11, 2007

ah ha... thanks carmen
posted by sauris at 9:48 AM on April 11, 2007

Free market economics only work when it's a free market - and coffee just plain isn't.
posted by handee at 9:50 AM on April 11, 2007

I find it extremely sad that people are favoriting stereo's reply.

First of all, it's an enormous and blatant copyright violation. he copied an entire article into a post, and added nothing. It's not fair use, it's just plagiarism.

Secondly, it's misguided and wrong.

The first argument they make is that the low price of coffee is supposed to be a signal for some producers to switch to another crop, and that fairtrade will prevent this.

That makes no sense. The price premium will allow some producers to make a more tolerable living today, but it will decrease the demand for non-FairTrade certified coffee. Therefore coffee producers will have significant incentive to either make more money by growing FairTrade coffee, or to make more money by growing another plant.

They randomly assert that it could encourage growth in the non-FairTrade market, but this assertion is never backed up by evidence, and is counter to the very economic theory they spouted out earlier in the paragraph.

It was at that sentence that I became sure this was simply a propaganda piece, as no intelligent author could have done that accidentally.

The next paragraph seems to be, again, in contradiction to the one before it. It acknowledges the aforementioned problem that some farmers cannot diversify from coffee if the price is too low, because of the way the contracts are written, without recognizing that this problem is going to exist no matter whether or not FairTrade is in place.

It then notes that FairTrade could provide the capital neccessary for some farmers to diversify, but instead of admitting that this could be good for those farmers, it simply claims that they'll always re-invest in more coffee. It's as though they think that only Economists can understand that it's a good idea to diversify, if your holdings allow. An elitist and unsubstantiated assertion, at best.

Their next opbjection is a complete and total straw man. They say "Another objection to Fairtrade is that certification is predicated on political assumptions about the best way to organise labour", but nobody has asserted that. The actual assertion is that Fairtrade certification is somewhat better than not having said certification.

The rest of that paragraph essentially just complains that big businesses can't get certified, only what they refer to as small producers. One could make an argument about whether or not this is fair, but the free market enthusiast should support their right to include only small firms as their matter of choice.

That paragraph then complains that the good can't be applied to the majority of the coffee industry. This claim is particularly funny, because it is actually arguing that FairTrade is, in fact, good for the workers. After all, otherwise it would not matter that people were excluded.

Next up, is an utterly silly comment that "Guaranteeing a minimum price also means there is no incentive to improve quality, grumble coffee-drinkers, who find that the quality of Fairtrade brews varies widely". Speaking as a coffee drinker, this is true of all coffees. It's why all coffee nuts have a few Go-To choices, and don't just buy willy-nilly.

but that said, there is an incentive anyway. If a farmer grows bad coffee, there is less reason for anybody (including FairTrade buyers) to buy it in the future. The demand will go down, and thus the pressure will be applied. Once more, the author is being completely disingenuous.

That paragraph then jumps, relatively incoherently, into a comment about the "Rainforest Alliance". Now the Rainforest Alliance might be a lovely thing, it might not be, but it has no real bearing on the goodness or badness of FairTrade coffee versus market coffee.

But perhaps the most cogent objection to Fairtrade is that it is an inefficient way to get money to poor producers

This objection is utterly silly, as it's the whole reason the system works. I pay an extra $1/pound for the FairTrade logo. My retailer carries the FairTrade coffee because they make an extra $0.50/pound on it. Their wholesaler carries it because they make an extra $0.25/pound on it. And yes, the farmer only makes $0.10/pound extra or what not... but that's still better than nothing for the producer. And if the rest of the market had no markup, there'd be no significant value to the retailers for carring FairTrade coffee.

As such, I wouldn't call it a cogent objection. I'd say it's the reason the whole scheme works.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 8:34 PM on April 11, 2007

I apologize for the length of the above reply, but my more concise criticism of mayor west and stereo's deeply flawed posts was deleted by the administrators.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 8:36 PM on April 11, 2007

This book just came through my mailbox. It's an ethnographic investigation of the effects of free and fair trade coffee in Mexico. I haven't read it, but I thought people here might be interested.
posted by carmen at 8:07 AM on April 12, 2007

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