News & Politics

Fair Trade Coffee: Coming to a Cafe Near You (Short Version)

Buying fair trade coffee -- coffee grown and sold with concern for both the coffee farmer and the land -- may not be the bravest form of activism. But the impact of consuming ethically on poverty and the environment is impossible to ignore.
Here's a breathtaking statistic: The $3 many Americans shell out every day for a latte at Starbucks is equivalent to the daily wage of a Central American coffee picker. Nonplussed? Here's another heart-stopper, specially designed for the non-gourmet coffee drinker: Those $3.95 cans of Maxwell House and Folgers you pick up at your local supermarket, well, the beans that fill them are bought for around a quarter and come from corporate farms, which use environmentally poisonous pesticides and clear-cut forests to produce the highest possible yields.

Such stats may just serve as more fodder for those already sufficiently demoralized by the practices of big business. Indeed, you may be too depressed to read any further. But what is interesting about galling information of this sort is that it is being used to create a new American political animal: the ethical consumer.

The ethical consumer may pale in comparison to do-gooders of old -- the abolitionist, the suffragist, the fighter for civil rights or no nukes -- since his primary act is figuring out how to ethically empty his wallet. Yet considering that among the 100 largest economies in the world 51 are corporations and that 82 of the top 200 corporations are American, ethical consumerism may be the best political weapon we've got.

Enter fair trade coffee

Consider the example of Starbucks and "fair trade" coffee. Fair trade coffee or "politically correct coffee," as Time magazine dubbed it, is grown under the rainforest canopy on small farms rather than on huge plantations that depend on pesticides. It sells for a minimum of $1.29 per pound -- which goes directly to coffee farmers, not to middlemen, who usually pay farmers no more than 35 cents. And, according to TransFair USA, the group that certifies the beans as fairly grown and sold, fair trade has allowed 500,000 coffee farmers in 20 developing nations to improve the quality of their product, live above the poverty line and send their children to school.

Nothing wrong with that. Unless you're Starbucks and want to make certain next year's profits exceed this one's. (The company's net revenues soared 28 percent in 1999 to $1.7 billion.)

At first, Starbucks' refused to sell fair trade coffee. It explained that until there was consumer demand, it could not sell the p.c. bean in its 2,300 stores. But after being subject to a year-long campaign organized by the San Francisco nonprofit Global Exchange -- a campaign that culminated in plans to stage protests at Starbucks in 29 cities -- the retailer decided to avoid a public relations nightmare and start selling fair trade.

"Fair trade gets the benefit back to the family farmer," said Starbucks vice president David Olsen shortly after the decision in April. "It is consistent with our values."

Starbucks' decision to sell fair trade coffee, however, does not mean the company will brew it in their stores. This will depend on "consumer demand," say Starbucks corporate heads. And so, once again, this will mean that Global Exchange and other fair trade coffee advocates will have to prove -- through a combination of grassroots organizing, educational outreach and threat of protest -- that a demand exists.

Is fair trade just for gourmands?

Starbucks' introduction of fair trade coffee is a victory for ethical consumers. And it extends beyond the creator of the Frappaccino: during the 18 months fair trade coffee has been available on the U.S. market, the number of retailers has grown from 400 to 7,000, according to Paul Rice, head of TransFair USA. In late November, even Safeway, the supermarket king, launched fair trade coffee in 1,500 of its stores nationwide -- a decision Rice says came about not through threats of protest but through the supermarket's "enlightened self-interest."

"Companies are coming to me now," says Rice. "And some, such as Choice Organic Teas, have decided to eat the cost of buying fair trade rather than raise prices. They want to support fair trade, introduce it to their customers and figure losing a few cents now is worth it."

But what about the big guns of the coffee industry: Nestle's, Folgers, Maxwell House? "I think it's going to be a challenge to convince companies who are paying less than 50 cents and selling it for around $4 that they should pay $1.29," says Deborah James, fair trade director of Global Exchange. "Fair trade coffee successes so far have all been in the gourmet coffee industry."

This fact makes activists in the ethical consumer movement cringe. For it raises the question of how wide the movement can be. Will enough Americans care about labor conditions in the Third World and the environmental destruction wrought there by American corporations to force real change in the coffee industry? Will they, as James has decided, "never voluntarily put someone in a situation of poverty, exploitation and debt just to enjoy a cup of joe."

You may say no, but activists like Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, argues we have little choice: "We have an obligation to the environment, we have an obligation to human rights, to drive unsustainable coffee off the market. We need to reach that point, like when it became socially unacceptable to buy products from South Africa because of Apartheid."

The fair trade pitch

How fair trade advocates will accomplish this sort of mass educational outreach depends on their point of view. James, whose organization Global Exchange is focused on international social justice issues, says consumer knowledge about globalization is the key.

"I usually begin by pointing out that coffee is the second largest traded commodity after oil, and that the U.S. consumes an estimated one-fifth of all the world's coffee, making us not only the largest consumer in the world but the most able to put pressure on the industry."

She and her colleagues at Global Exchange then tie coffee farmers' labor conditions to the more familiar issue of sweatshop labor. "We call non-fair trade coffee 'sweatshop coffee' because many Americans know about sweatshop conditions in Asia and Mexico," says James. "They know the people who make Nike sneakers and Gap t-shirts are paid inadequate wages and work in unhealthy conditions."

Cummins, whose Organic Consumers Association focuses more on environmental issues, also uses the term sweatshop coffee in its activist literature. But he also tries to get consumers to think about agricultural and environmental sustainability:

"I tell people that the way coffee was grown for hundreds of years had a low impact on the environment. Coffee bushes were planted with jungle canopy over them and with a variety of other crops, such as papaya and cocoa. Then the international coffee cartel essentially decided they had a better idea, which was sun-grown coffee. What you do with sun-grown coffee is you chop down everything and you use a lot of chemical fertilizer, pesticides and so on -- and you destroy the environment, the ecosystem."

European sophistication

Both James and Cummins note that Europeans have been ahead of Americans in bringing fair trade coffee to market. Since 1998, seven different products -- coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas, honey, sugar and orange juice -- have been available with the fair trade label in Europe. Fair trade products are also sold in Japan and Canada. Why are we behind?

"In Europe the media's better," says Cummins. "The political system is based on proportional representation. There are the same number of people here as in Europe who support Green Party ideas; the difference is they have 10 percent of the seats in the European parliament and we have no seats in Congress."

Cummins adds there is mass support for organic food -- and mass antipathy toward chemically altered or genetically engineered food -- because of Europe's Nazi past, which makes people extremely wary about a super race of anything and genetic enhancement. The recent outbreak of Mad Cow disease is also an undeniable factor, says Cummins:

"We just can't comprehend what it feels like to know that you might die because the government lied to you about industrial agriculture practices. Europeans now say: 'Never am I going to just accept something because establishment science and the government tell me it's safe.'"

As for a more sophisticated understanding of globalization, James says Europeans are ahead because they are able to tie the lessons of their colonial past to today's global future.

"Europeans have a direct understanding that the system of agriculture we have now -- where farmers are exploited and their products are unfairly sold -- is based on a colonial system," she says. "Whereas in the United States we do not feel responsible for the fact that in the Winward Islands of the Caribbean people there are entirely dependent on banana plantations because we put them there."

James would like to link non-fair trade coffee to the history of colonialism or the concept of "neo-colonialism," but she says: "If you bring up the word colonialism or imperialism here, people have no idea what you're talking about."

The future of ethical consumerism

Although Americans may be somewhat blind to history, polls show most are awake to the present. According to a December 1999 US News & World Report poll, 6 in 10 Americans are concerned about the working conditions under which products are made in the United States and more than 9 in 10 are concerned about working conditions under which products are made in Asia and Latin America.

This is good news for ethical consumerism. It shows that consumer choice based on criteria of economic justice and, assumedly, environmental sustainability has a future. But does it mean that ethical consumerism can grow beyond the 50 million Americans who Paul Rice says practice it? Can ethical consumerism -- without government support and positive mainstream media attention -- be viewed as something other than the ultimate knee-jerk liberal issue?

Argues Ronnie Cummins: "It's a very good historical trend that consumers are becoming more aware, but unless trade unions and churches, consumer groups and environmental groups work together -- North and South -- we're not going to solve this problem. Sure, we can alleviate some of our bad conscience on a day-to-day basis, but that's not getting to the root of the problem, which is unchecked globalization. Even if you can produce cheaper in China the hidden costs of doing something like that are pretty darn convincing."

Take Action! -- Ten Things You Can Do for Fair Trade Coffee

Retail Outlets of Fair Trade Coffee:

For more information about TransFair USA go to:

For more information about the Organic Consumers Association go to:
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