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Does Fair Trade Coffee Lift Growers Out of Poverty or Simply Ease Our Guilty Conscience?

Is the Fair Trade movement just a marketing scheme or does it truly provide a living wage for coffee growers?

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For a consumer, buying Fair Trade coffee does not necessarily mean spending more money. Starbucks sells its coffee (including its Fair Trade options) for $9.95 to $11.95 per pound. In comparison, Peace Coffee (a worker-owned cooperative in Minneapolis, MN) sells Fair Trade coffee for $10.95 per pound or $11.95 per pound for decaf. Just Coffee sells its coffee for about $10 to $12 per pound in 12-ounce packages, or less if you buy in bulk. Equal Exchange, which sells Fair Trade coffee nationally, prices its coffee higher -- from $11 to $14.67 per pound -- in its 12-ounce and 10-ounce sizes but sells it for as low as $9.40 per pound in five-pound bags. In other words, if you are already buying specialty coffee, buying Fair Trade will not make a difference for you financially, but it will make a difference for the people who grow your coffee beans. (In fact, if you buy espresso drinks in coffee shops, buying Fair Trade coffee to brew at home is a bargain in comparison.)

The benefits of Fair Trade for the grower extend beyond money. One perk of growing coffee (compared to other export crops) is that coffee requires a shade canopy, often provided by food crops that the growers themselves can eat. Thus, growers are able to produce their own food and participate in the cash economy with their coffee revenue, instead of doing one at the expense of the other.

Those who have visited or studied Fair Trade coffee growers say that the Fair Trade certification really has no down side. Growers always receive a price above the market price for their coffee and they also benefit from participating in democratically run cooperatives and the projects like schools or clinics the cooperatives finance.

Additionally, Fair Trade coffee growers sometimes get access to cheap credit, allowing them to hire extra labor for the coffee harvest and reap a greater payout as a result of harvesting more coffee than they could by themselves. Lastly, Fair Trade coffee growers ideally have long-term relationships with the First World coffee roasters who buy their coffee. For example, Equal Exchange, a worker-owned cooperative that pioneered Fair Trade coffee in the U.S., tests all of its coffee for quality. When coffee quality is substandard, Equal Exchange does not buy it, but because they operate with a goal of helping the grower cooperatives prosper in the long term, they provide feedback to the growers so they understand how to improve their coffee's quality in the future.

Even if Fair Trade provides only benefits to growers with no down sides, the question of whether the Fair Trade price is high enough to give consumers what they pay for is unclear. Some feel that Fair Trade coffee is simply a market in which the price is set just high enough to give consumers a warm fuzzy feeling for helping subsistence farmers but low enough so that consumers (and roasters) still buy the coffee. Is that how it should be? It's essentially a question of whether it's best to make a small difference for many coffee growers (by pricing Fair Trade coffee so Wal-Mart, etc., sells it and mainstream consumers buy it) or a big difference for a few coffee growers (by pricing Fair Trade coffee high enough to truly provide a living wage for growers but potentially alienating major retailers and thus many consumers from the market).

For a consumer, the choice is clear: buying Fair Trade is the way to go. However, consumers should be aware of the nuances within the Fair Trade market in order to make the most ethical choice (and hopefully enjoy some delicious coffee, too). First of all, make sure the coffee you buy is actually Fair Trade-certified, as corporations looking to undercut the Fair Trade movement will sometimes market their coffee with various ethical-sounding certifications. (For example, Sara Lee, one of the world's four major coffee buyers, markets some of its coffee as UTZ certified -- a certification with relatively weak standards.)

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