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Men lifting coffee sacks at a dry mill in Nicaragua. [Photographs: Meister]

More than just some buzzwords on the side of the bag, Fair Trade certification and the movement behind it can go a long way in ensuring that the beans that you brew come complete with the best intentions—and the most sustainable results.

What makes Fair Trade–certified coffee so much better for the beans, for the farmers, for the earth, and for your morning cup? Today, we explore what the term means, and why you should support it with your hard-earned dough.

Coffee prices have been much in the news over the past few years, as commodity futures trading has caused historic hikes on green beans everywhere. Climate change, supply-demand shifts, and economic turbulence are all partially to blame, and coffee drinkers—at least those who favor something more than a cup of brown caffeinated sludge—are undoubtedly starting to feel the pinch.

But when we feel the pinch as coffee drinkers, that often means they're also getting squeezed where the plants are grown, not simply pocketing the difference. Though it amounts to a caffeine headache on the drinking end, to a coffee farmer that tightening vice can mean certain failure.

One significant means of battling that failure is by buying certified coffees from responsible retailers, and understanding the meaning behind the movement. Here's a little primer on what Fair Trade certification is, how it works, and why it's important for coffee lovers to support.

What is Fair Trade?

Fair Trade is a sustainability-inspired market movement aimed at improving the financial health and profitability of small producers and farm owners, most of whom are based in developing nations, and whose products are bought and sold on a relatively volatile global market. (Many but not all of the products that are eligible for Fair Trade certification are considered commodities: fruit, textiles, and flowers, for instance. Today we'll be speaking specifically about coffee, and how certification affects the people who grow and buy it.)

In order to achieve stability, Fair Trade certifying organizations have encouraged coffee farmers with modest plots to band together and form democratically run organizations or co-ops; doing so allows the larger group to simulate an economy of scale, pooling financial resources to buy and distribute supplies evenly, and to command greater financial leverage by negotiating prices as a unified body, rather than piecemeal among the individual growers.

Because a Fair Trade–certified growers group has more coffee in its combined coffers than any one member might have had on his or her own, it has a better ability to bargain with processing mills and foreign buyers for better prices across the board. Additionally, the Fair Trade certification commits potential buyers to a contract that mandates a minimum base price that's ten cents per pound above the current commodity rate, as well as a guarantee of purchase despite global price crashes.

Fair Trade certification also requires that the growers group proves its own practices are within a set of ethical standards that include, among other things: acceptable working conditions, the absence of child labor, and ecologically responsible farming. (The latter, however, does not imply that the farms need to have organic certification to qualify, though many do.)

The certification itself is handled by a few organizations—Fair Trade USA in North America and the Germany-based Fair Trade International among them—that do the work of qualifying and quantifying a producing organization's success at meeting those particular standards, and will issue the stamp of fair approval accordingly. Those certifying bodies—as well as other entities, such as the Fair Trade Federation—also help link producers and consumers, and can promote Fair Trade–certified coffee with marketing and awareness campaigns.

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Coffee bags waiting for export.

Why Fair Trade Certification Matters

While operating independently certainly has its perks—who doesn't want to be his own boss, after all—there are some pressing downsides to being a farmer whose small plot of land is responsible for their entire year's income. (Not to mention financing for the next year's crop, as almost all coffee is grown on bank-loaned credit.) Buying fertilizers and other necessities, for instance, is more economical when done in bulk; shipping costs can also be defrayed by amassing a greater quantity to send overseas as a whole container. And while an independent small farmer might struggle to find an interested buyer for his relatively miniscule yield, as a part of a group of growers, he can leverage his cost of production alongside the collective yield, which allows everyone to command higher prices.

By ensuring that the structure within certified co-ops or more informally unified participants is democratic (meaning regular elections are held to fill leadership roles, and decisions that affect the group are decided by majority vote), Fair Trade certification is able to empower folks who have been historically disenfranchised by powerful plantation owners, governmental privatization of coffee farms, and a free market that favors large-scale producers.

What Fair Trade Certification Lacks

While there's much good to be said about certified coffees, the movement and its enforcement are naturally not without limitations. For one thing, the sheer immensity of the global scale it operates on prevents certifying bodies from approaching each qualifying growers organization or co-op with much nuance, having instead to settle on something more of a blanket checklist they can apply to their producing partners worldwide. While the cost of production is taken into account when determining these guidelines, it can be a relatively broad standard, and is not uniquely tailored toward the needs of individual groups or co-ops.

Similarly, though the group or co-op as a whole is guaranteed an agreed-upon base price for its coffee output thanks to the tenets of the certification, there's not always much wiggle-room for price incentives when it comes to quality variances among the farmer members, depending on the buyer. For instance, should one grower's crop score several points above the rest of his compatriots', he is not always guaranteed to receive more money per pound than the rest of the group, since there are contractual agreements that have already been established. (Microlots, or super-special coffees that are separated out from a larger lot on account of better quality, are an option among Fair Trade–certified transactions, but they're not necessarily assured.)

Additionally, global Fair Trade certification (as issued by Fair Trade International) only applies to formally recognized and democratically organized co-operative groups, and cannot be attached to property owned by farmers operating outside that type of formal structure. (Fair Trade USA is moving toward opening certification to previously ineligible growers, such as those heading single-owner or family-owned farms.)

Furthermore, while the vast majority of Fair Trade–certified co-ops grow their coffee organically, that's not required in order to attain the seal of FT approval.

Not All Fair Trade Coffee Is Created Equal

While the message and the mission behind Fair Trade–certified coffees is commendable and defendable, be aware that good intentions don't always make for delicious coffee: As with any consumer product—especially the edible ones—if the coffee isn't grown, harvested, processed, roasted, or brewed well, all the good intentions and fairness certifying in the world aren't going to make it taste good. (And if it doesn't taste good, you'll probably be less inclined to buy it again—which of course sends those good intentions right on down the drain.)

Buying fair, sustainable, and delicious coffee isn't an act of charity: It's a moral, political, and taste-based act, and your tastebuds are ultimately the chorus of with the loudest opinions. So while I certainly and wholeheartedly advocate for coffee drinkers to seek out responsibly traded coffee, I also acknowledge that it might take a little tasting around to find the source that's a perfect fit.

Ask your regular morning barista if she knows about the buying history of the coffee she's brewing, and if she has any recommended beans that you might like. Or seek out advocates of sustainable practices, such as Equal Exchange, Crop to Cup, and Thanksgiving Coffee Company. There are plenty of roasters out there with a commitment not only to quality in the cup, but also in the relationship both at and with the source: Most are pretty open with their philosophies, and many wear their fairness on their sleeves (which, thankfully, can make your life as a conscious consumer that much easier).

Do you buy Fair Trade–certified coffee? Why or why not? (And, if you're interested, in a future post we can speak a little bit about the differences between Fair Trade and another certification that's popping up more and more, on coffee as well as other products like chocolate: Direct Trade.)


About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista and an audacious eater, but she remains a Nervous Cook.

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