Fair Trade Means Better Lives, But Can It Also Mean Better Coffee?

03/05/2014 - 1:31 PM

At its core Fair Trade is about sustainability, in every sense of the word. Social sustainability. Environmental sustainability. Economic sustainability. As such, the Fair Trade Certified label has become an international symbol of responsible farming practices, as well as a reflection of brand and consumer values. It is this distinction, of Fair Trade as a mission-driven certification, which has led some to question whether it can be anything else. They wonder--can a cup of coffee that does good also taste good?

The answer is: absolutely. Exceptional coffee and sustainability can (and must) go hand-in-hand. 

Though Fair Trade is not a certification of quality, it has become an important vehicle for improving quality and enabling farmers to produce some of the best beans on the market. In fact, nearly all Fair Trade Certified coffee today qualifies as specialty grade, further proving that good taste and good practices are not mutually exclusive-- they’re integrally linked.  

Fair Trade Means Better Lives, But Can It Also Mean Better Coffee?

Better Income, Better Coffee:

According to the United Nations, there are over two billion people living on less than two dollars a day, 65% of whom work in agriculture. The reality is that coffee farmers are poor and getting poorer. In late 2013, for example, coffee prices plummeted to some of the lowest levels in a decade. With prices hovering around $1 per pound, the majority of coffee farmers who supply our morning joe were making less than half of what they made just a few years ago. 

Can we really demand investment in quality when people cannot keep food on the table or send their kids to school?

Through Fair Trade, the only certification with a guaranteed minimum price to protect against low markets, farmers are able to meet their immediate needs and find the stability required to make important investments in quality.

  • The Fair Trade Minimum Price: This is a promise between producers and buyers that a minimum amount will always be paid for their beans—creating stability for farmers, and a strong reliable supply for businesses. Remember this is a floor, not a ceiling, and Fair Trade farmers can, and do, negotiate higher prices based on quality. This price also serves as collateral to anchor lending to cooperatives, helping them access much-needed pre-harvest and long-term financing.
  • Community Development Premiums: In Fair Trade growers also earn a premium of $0.20/lb for community investment, and an additional $0.30 if the coffee is also organic. Of this additional income, 25% is designated for investment in quality and productivity, though many producers vote to spend significantly more in this area.

Take the case of Jose Isidro Lara, a Fair Trade farmer in Honduras. With the help of Fair Trade prices and premiums, Jose was able to build his own personal wet mill, and a solar drying area to achieve greater consistency in his coffee. He’s been working hard to improve quality over time, and now earns double, sometimes triple, the market price for his exceptional beans.

Fair Trade Means Better Lives, But Can It Also Mean Better Coffee?

Farmers and Buyers Working Together:

Farmers today understand that investing in quality is critical to their long-term survival in the business. Similarly, coffee buyers know that working closely with producers through Fair Trade is a great way to develop the quality of the coffee they serve to the world.  

While Fair Trade does not certify for cup quality, many buyers have known for years that Fair Trade cooperatives in various origins can in fact produce excellent coffee.  As part of our continued efforts at Atlas to identify and source high-grade offerings, we have forged strong relationships with multiple Fair Trade cooperatives – including CODECH in Guatemala, COCAFCAL in Honduras, and Bukonzo Joint Cooperative in Uganda – who are committed to quality as well as increased traceability through micro-lots.  These groups have a strong awareness of current trends in the specialty market and understand that investments in quality control are critical in securing their long-term viability.  Yet if their members did not have access to the specialty market through their respective Fair Trade co-ops, they likely would have be faced with having to sell their coffee at lower prices to commercial buyers.-- Al Liu, Trader & Certified Coffee Specialist, Atlas Coffee Importers

Sustainable Coffee Wins Awards:

When it comes to producing outstanding coffee, Fair Trade leaders continue to make their mark on the world. Just a few noteworthy mentions:

  • CECOVASA, a Fair Trade coffee co-op in Peru, won the National Quality Coffee Competition six times in the last nine years. They also won the People’s Choice Award at SCAA’s Coffees of the Year competition in 2010.
  • Six out of the top 10 coffees in the Peruvian cupping competition were from Fair Trade co-ops.
  • Four roasters that source Fair Trade Certified coffee were nominated for the 2013 Good Food Awards.
  • Coda Coffee was named 2014 Macro Roaster of the Year, an award that “recognizes companies that roast coffees of superior quality, exemplify a dedication to sustainable practices and employee education, and demonstrate a commitment to the coffee industry.” They are the most recent of many Fair Trade buyers to win this award.

Not only are Fair Trade coffees winning awards, certification is also regularly used as a qualifying factor for other prominent programs: 

In order for us to consider a product for our Whole Trade program, it has to be certified and it has to be high-quality. The good news is that there are so many outstanding, quality-forward Fair Trade coffees out there, and we’ve been able to develop close relationships with growers to further develop that quality over time.-- Darrin Daniel, Director of Sourcing & Quality Control, Allegro Coffee Company"

Securing the Future of Quality Coffee

As it turns out, you don’t have to choose between good taste and good practices. Fair Trade has come a long way in the last 50+ years, and with it, a growing number of farmers, traders, roasters, retailers and consumers who understand that investing in people is critical way to secure the future of quality coffee. It really is something you can feel good about.

“If you want quality, delivery on time, a sustainable product, it has to be Fair Trade. Relationships with farmers and buyers must be strengthened. We’re not a production machine but a living participant. First, Fair Trade matters because we are poor and we are small farmers. Second, Fair Trade matters because it enables quality. Of all the certifications, Fair Trade is the one that matters most.”—Miguel Paz, CECOVASA, Peru 

Fair  Trade Means Better Lives, But Can It Also Mean Better Coffee?

03/05/2014 - 1:31 PM
03/05/2014 - 10:27 AM