“You don’t purposefully buy Fair Trade coffee?!”

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“You don’t purposefully buy Fair Trade coffee?!”

No we don’t purposefully buy Fair Trade coffee. We might have some, I don’t really know or mind[1. as long as the farmer is getting a good price for a good product, I don’t personally mind. This will hopefully make more sense below.].

“But why Zane? How could you? You keep going on about caring etc etc but now you tell us this.”Their is a very good reason for this. The reason is because, and quoting the coffee genius James Hoffmann[2. 2007 World Barista Champ, co-owner of Square Mile Coffee Roasters, owner of one of the speciality coffee worlds’ most thought-provoking, status quo challenging and inspiring blogs call Jim Seven inter alia.], Fair Trade is “the absolute minimum necessary to get people to stop questioning how you source, or pushing you to do better. Not enough.”[3. Without repeating what he has to say, read the article yourself: www.jimseven.com/2009/10/18/the-fair-trade-finish-line].

VERY briefly how I see it, there are two prevalent ways of trading coffee. The standard way whereby one regards coffee as a New York Stock Exchange Dollar value; you primarily look at and regard your self with coffee figures. And this is where Fair Trade tries to ensure a fairer price by ensuring that those who comply etc etc will get 15cents (US) per pound above the stock exchange price.

The second is “known” as the direct-trade or relationship coffee model. Basically, it is about cutting out unnecessary middle-men where possible and locate the source of the coffee whether it be a coffee co-op (several farms or a regions collective coffee supply that is collected together) or single-estate / farm in order to build a relationship with the farmer to team together. The emphasis here is not just on money but on quality and paying a good price for a good product, and looking at ways in which one can assist farming communities develop[4. I might delve into an entire blog some day about development but briefly, the term “development” has been defined by several money-hungry multinationals and globalised for their own ends (i.e. development is financial) instead of localising what development means to a specific community, culture or country. Developmental aspirations in the US are not necessarily the same as they are in Rwanda]. Benefits include paying the farmer(s) directly which means more money going straight to the farmer (or at least more direct). In general, most companies who purchase coffee this way have not paid less than twice that of the New York Stock Exchange price.

There are numerous potential problems with Fair Trade but, if you are interested, I can e-mail you two really good articles about Fair Trade (although they are slightly too harsh on Fair Trade and what it is and has done even if merely with regards to changing mind-sets and/or creating awareness). One reason that irritates me personally though is that if you have two farms next to each other and they are both Fair Trade certified, and the one farmer plants his crop and ignores it until harvest time while the other takes care of his farm as though it were a member of the family – i.e. producing much better tasting coffee in theory – once processed and sold, both farmers get the same amount of money per pound. Sounds slightly more like Unfair Trade to me.

A second reason: in a video blog I watched recently[5. check out the crazy duo of Tamper Tantrum at www.tampertantrum.com. If I recall correctly, it was video blog number two…hmmm, or number one. ], a very good observation and interesting point was raised with regards to the selling prices of general “run-of-the-mill” coffee and Fair Trade around Central and South America last year. For most of these countries, due to a huge drought in the general region, coffee was selling at quite a lot higher than, and at times double that of Fair Trade due to a lower yield and higher demand. Now what happened to the guys “locked in” to selling at the “better” Fair Trade price? Apparently what happened was that a lot of the farmers where sneakily selling there stuff off to other buyers to get the extra money and in deed they should. But this doesn’t happen all the time and Fair Trade pricing is often giving back more.

So, a late disclaimer just to clarify my feelings, I am not against Fair Trade if the farmer actually gets more than if they had to “sell out” the stock exchange way (i.e. what they claim they do) and this does happen quite often – my heart is for the farmer too. If I feel that the green coffee I receive is far more amazing than the “run-of-the-mill” stuff then my green coffee costs should reflect it. Both third-world farmer (and processor) and Western-world roaster can benefit from a really good product, why should it be just the end buyers who benefit? So if you are buying Fair Trade and it’s changing the lives of those farmers more so than before Fair Trade certification then great.

Interested in direct-trade or relationship coffees? Find out more from www.sustainableharvest.com.



  1. cuth says:

    hmmm…its okay,we’re still friends.as long as people are trading fairly-and really that’s the bigger picture here-the certifications are often just a way of keeping yourself accountable to that principle.FairTrade is merely a minimum,you and james hoffman are absolutely right-but it gives a framework to work within and beyond, that people recognise and find accessible-you would still have to get to know a company and its people to know whether they do it for a piece of paper or because its the right thing.

  2. cuth says:

    but then – thats the same as the idea of relationship coffee too, isn’t it? i know you, i trust you and i would drink your coffee anytime 🙂 all the while knowing that i’m changing the world through that one simple purchase 🙂

  3. cuth says:

    yes – i think he covers my point nicely actually – its about relationship coffee – you need to develop a relationship with whatever part of the tree to cup chain you come in at – whether thats your local barista or roaster or farmer, the only way to judge integrity is by consistent, meaningful, ongoing interaction 🙂

  4. Jerry says:

    There are very dissenting viewpoints on fair trade, but I think we can agree that most sellers get into fair trade with the greatest of intents. I am a big fan of fair trade coffee sellers and I am loyal to them because I think fair trade is a good thing, and I stand by their philosophy, however imperfect it may or may not be.

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