Fair Trade Coffee: Coming to a Cafe Near You
- News for Anarchists & Activists:
Fair Trade Coffee: Coming to a Cafe Near You
Tamara Straus, AlterNet
November 30, 2000
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 that use
environmentally poisonous pesticides and clear-cut forests
to produce the highest possible yields.
This may just serve as more fodder for those already
sufficiently demoralized by the practices of big business.
But what is interesting about such stats is they are being
used to create a new American political animal: the ethical
True, the ethical consumer may pale in comparison to the
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 multinational corporations like Microsoft have
annual revenues higher than the GNP of most countries -- and
deregulation in the U.S. is on the rise -- ethical
consumerism may be the best political weapon Americans have
Enter Fair Trade Coffee
Consider the example of fair trade coffee or "politically
correct coffee," as Time magazine has dubbed it. Fair trade
coffee sells for a minimum of $1.29 per pound -- which goes
directly to coffee farmers, not to "coyotes," the middlemen
who pay farmers usually no more than 35 cents a pound. It is
grown on small farms, which tend to cultivate in the
traditional way: under the rainforest canopy and without
pesticides. And because fair trade coffee has doubled
farmers' annual incomes, more than 500,000 people in 20
developing nations are now living above the poverty line.
Nothing wrong with that. Indeed, those who hear about the
benefits of fair trade coffee tend to support it. The only
problem is that a nationwide advertising campaign is needed
to get the word out, and large coffee retailers -- the ideal
candidates for such an effort -- will not do it, since
buying coffee at fair trade prices would cut into their
"Oh, it's the same old story again," you might say. "Good
ideas, impossible to implement." But what is different about
the fair trade coffee campaign is that, thanks to a
coalition of nonprofits, good ideas are being implemented
using ethical consumerism as a bargaining chip.
The story of fair trade coffee begins in 1988, in Holland,
motherland of the international human rights movement. A
group of fair traders selling coffee and other products at a
crafts market decide to create a fair trade seal -- a label
that will let customers know the product was bought at a
decent price. They call the seal Max Havelaar after a
best-selling 1860 book about the exploitation of Javanese
coffee workers by Dutch merchants. In doing so, the traders
remind their countrymen that coffee is a commodity tied to
the history of colonialism.
In the same year, the Fairtrade Labeling Organization (FLO)
is founded, an umbrella institution for European
certification organizations like Max Havelaar, which have
begun to help coffee farmers create fair trade cooperatives
and connect them to retailers in the North. During the next
decade, FLO's members draw a whopping half million farmers.
The reason? Coffee farmers receive a tripled per pound price
and FLO's arrangement eliminates their dependence on
The farmers' end of the bargain is also relatively simple.
In exchange for letting TransFair England, for example,
inspect their farms and collect 10 cents per pound on coffee
sold, coffee farmers get the right to use the fair trade
By 2000, FLO's efforts are a success. Fair trade coffee
cooperatives have spread from Guatemala to Indonesia, and
the TransFair certification seal is found in 16 European
countries as well as Japan and Canada. Worldwide, over 100
fair trade coffee brands are sold in approximately 35,000
markets. Organic fair trade coffee is also on the rise, as
farmers are using their increased incomes to cultivate
coffee without chemicals.
America the Late
Where were Americans during all this time? you might ask.
Well, for one, wasting time over cups of joe. Americans
consume an estimated one-fifth of all the coffee trade,
making it the largest consumer in the world. Moreover, as
anyone who lives near a Starbucks outlet knows, Americans
have developed a yen for gourmet coffee, for cappuccinos and
lattes and decaf mocha frappes.
This is the main reason Paul Rice, who worked with coffee
farmers in Nicaragua for 11 years, founded a U.S wing of
TransFair in the summer of 1999. "I just took the next
logical step," says Rice. "In Nicaragua I saw fair trade
coffee cooperatives find markets in Europe, and I assumed
the same could be true for the U.S."
Rice started local. FairTrade USA's headquarters in Oakland,
Calif. meant it could take advantage of the San Francisco
Bay Area's historic gourmet coffee tradition and liberal
politics. Within four months the Bay Area's reputation
proved true: 12 local roasters signed up to sell fair trade
coffee. Today 35 fair trade brands are available in 122 Bay
Area supermarkets and cafes. The City Councils of San
Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley also have passed resolutions
to support the sale of fair trade coffee.
Fair Trade Frappaccinos?
But fair trade coffee advocates' real coup did not come
until April 2000, when Starbucks, which controls 20 percent
of the U.S. specialty coffee industry, agreed to carry fair
Of course, the agreement did not come without a fight. At
first Starbucks refused to carry fair trade, explaining that
until there was consumer demand it could not sell the
politically correct bean in its 2,300 stores. But after
being subject to a year-long campaign organized by Global
Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights organization --
a campaign that eventually culminated in plans to stage
protests at Starbucks in 29 cities -- the retailer decided
to avoid a public relations nightmare and sell the beans.
"Fair trade gets the benefit back to the family farmer,"
said Starbucks vice president David Olsen shortly after the
decision was made. "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.
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.
Deborah James, fair trade director of Global Exchange, says
that consumer demand is not the chief problem. "Since fair
trade became available at Starbucks in October," she says,
"consumers have told us that they are buying it by the pound
and that they want to see it as a 'coffee of the day,'
something that Starbucks, it seems, will not do."
Alan Gulick, Starbucks' public affairs director, says the
reason Starbucks does not serve fair trade as a daily brew
is because "the volume of fair trade coffee needed in not
available." Yet, according to Nina Luttinger, communications
manager of TransFair USA, there is evidence to the contrary.
She reports that in 1999 of the 60 million pounds of fair
trade coffee produced globally only half sold on the fair
"This meant that farmers had to sell their product through
the usual channels and got paid much less," says Luttinger,
who doubts that the fair trade coffee sale figures will be
drastically different in 2000.
Is Fair Trade Just for Gourmands?
Still, Starbucks introduction of fair trade coffee is a
victory for the movement. And the victory 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. In November 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 s hould pay
$1.29," says James. "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 problems created there
by American coffee corporations to force real change in the
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
Americans 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 mission and point of
view. Rice, who works directly with coffee retailers, argues
that the introduction of fair trade in the American gourmet
coffee industry is having a domino affect. "Corporations
realize they must meet the demands of their customers," says
Rice. "And if their customers want fair trade, they provide
James, whose organization Global Exchange is focused on
international social justice issues, believes consumer
knowledge about globalization is the key. She and her
colleagues have tied coffee farmers' work 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," she says. "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 is devoted
largely to environ mental issues, also uses the term
sweatshop coffee in its activist literature. But he also
tries to get consumers to think about agricultural and
"I tell people that the way coffee was grown for hundreds of
years had a low impact on the environment," says Cummins.
"And that with sun-grown coffee -- the 'innovation' of the
international coffee cartel -- what you do is chop down
everything and use a lot of chemical fertilizer, pesticides
and so on. In essence, you destroy the environment."
Activists like James and Cummins have wondered why Europeans
are ahead of Americans in bringing fair trade 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 were also available in Japan and Canada
before the U.S. Why are we were 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
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
or genetic enhancement. The recent outbreak of Mad Cow
disease is also an undeniable factor.
"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," says Cummins. "Europeans
now say: 'Never am I going to just accept something because
establishment science and the government tell me it's
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
The Future of Ethical Consumerism
Although Americans may be somewhat blind to history, polls
show they 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
environmental sustainability has a future. But does it mean
that ethical consumerism can grow beyond the 50 million
Americans who supposedly 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
News for Anarchists & Activists:
The Website of Lord Weÿrdgliffe:
The Dan Clore Necronomicon Page:
"Tho-ag in Zhi-gyu slept seven Khorlo. Zodmanas
zhiba. All Nyug bosom. Konch-hog not; Thyan-Kam
not; Lha-Chohan not; Tenbrel Chugnyi not;
Dharmakaya ceased; Tgenchang not become; Barnang
and Ssa in Ngovonyidj; alone Tho-og Yinsin in
night of Sun-chan and Yong-grub (Parinishpanna),
-- The Book of Dzyan.