By Michelle Hardy
The moral tug of Fair Trade coffee labels is hard to dodge. Who can object to better prices, better labor conditions, and direct trading without middlemen? Yet while masquerading as a $3.00 ticket to socially responsible consumerism, this rigid and expensive system can actually worsen wages, prices, and coffee quality in some regions if treated as a universal formula for fairness.
I travelled to Guatemala recently to learn from the alleged best coffee producers in the world: the farmers of Antigua valley. While there I worked with As Green As It Gets, an organization empowering private cooperatives of farmers and artisans through environmentally sustainable means. These 47 independent coffee farmers consistently elect not to pursue certification, for the reason that virtually all farmers in Antigua hate Fair Trade.
Franklin Voorhes, founder and director of As Green as it Gets, believes Fair Trade serves a far greater purpose for marketers than for farmers. His organization fervently avoids this system for the sake of their farmers’ profits, product quality, and cultural business traditions.
“What I find inherently interesting about Fair Trade,” explained Voohers, “is the way marketers use terms like ‘living wage’ and ‘fair price’ to promote their coffee to consumers, when these factors don’t really have to do with the farmer and don’t account for most of the extra costs consumers are paying for that coffee.”
The “living wage” Voohers referred to is part of the Fair Trade promise that farmers’ salaries “are in line with or exceeding regional average and official minimum wages for similar occupations.” Yet when Fair Trade does no further investigation into how sufficient the regional minimum wage rate is, automatically deeming it a so-called “living wage” is hardly progressive.
In Guatemala, the legal minimum wage is 48.5 Quetzales per day – a rather stingy compensation considering that the daily cost of the basic food basket in 2008 was Q64.72. If the term “living wage” can be used for incomes that are not, in fact, living wages, these supposedly improved labor conditions may often consist of no more than a semantic twist.
Getting certified would actually decrease As Green as it Gets farmers’ incomes, because prices provided by affiliated farmers in their network are significantly higher than those of Fair Trade. What’s more, these co-ops could not afford the enormous out-of-pocket cost of initial certification.
Overall, Guatemalan farmers’ wages are generally unimproved by being certified, and they can often find higher selling prices on bulk commodity markets than with fair trade. Why, then, do retailers still force consumers to pay higher prices for this coffee?
A pound of fair trade coffee can cost consumers an additional $3.00 just because the beans are certified. While most drinkers believe this incremental cost goes straight to the farmers, this is far from true. The normal price farmers receive for fair trade coffee is $1.25 to $1.50 per pound, with some lucky farmers reaching a maximum of $1.90 per pound in rare circumstances.
All this means that the vast majority of money demanded for certified coffee ends up in the hands of retailers. This skewed distribution of profits persists peacefully within an enormous market of duped do-gooders willing to pay more to be ethical.
Aside from the “fair” profit paradox, the major philosophical clash between specialty roasters and Fair Trade producers is their emphasis on quality. Fair Trade beans are commonly of much lower quality, mostly because growers in this system are guaranteed a flat selling price. There is little incentive for farmers to obsess over quality when faced with price floors and indifferent buyers from roasting companies.
As Voohers explains, “To make quality coffee, someone has to spend a lot of time separating the bad beans from the good beans. With the Fair Trade price floor, you don’t pay someone for their time anymore and they’re less likely to take out all the bad coffee from the harvest.”
For the farmers of Antigua, their bean quality is not only a world-renowned accomplishment; it is a sacred and essential part of their cultural business tradition. These farmers use solely shade-grown Arabica trees – a slower and more temperamental process. From these trees, only the reddest, most perfect coffee cherries are picked, while any bean with the slightest discoloration or deformity is discarded. On any given day, about 10-20% of the crop may be useless.
As Green as it Gets co-ops also practice a unique roasting technique and specialize in roast coffee markets. Unfortunately, Fair Trade only certifies minimum prices for unroasted coffee.
Antigua coffee farmers ensure quality through tremendous added labor and artful finesse in each stage of production – not to mention that every farmer hikes three miles up the side of a volcano each morning at dawn to tend to his fields by hand. As Green as it Gets farmers are also organic, promoting sustainable agriculture with biofuels and little to no chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
After shadowing this process, I sat down with a family of coffee roasters and enjoyed a cup of their day’s work. I can affirm firsthand that their concept of quality is not just impressive; it is worth guarding at all cost.
Despite such amazing traditions, specialty roasters very often buy Fair Trade coffee from Guatemalan farmers (regardless of whether it is only… fairly good quality), because conscientious consumers believe any coffee without this system’s sticker of approval is exploitative. How, then, can organizations like As Green as it Gets market their unique coffee as “ethical” to people only looking to splurge on feel-good Fair Trade products?
Before Fair Trade, the world coffee industry was uniformly known for rampantly plummeting prices and horrible conditions for farmers. There is no doubt Fair Trade coffee has made groundbreaking improvements for many areas, but it can still overlook a region’s unique achievements or labor needs. If As Green As It Gets farmers were certified, generations of specialty coffee rituals could be sacrificed.
In regards to the Guatemalan coffee trade as a whole, Voohers admitted, “I haven’t yet seen a spot where Fair Trade works. That doesn’t mean it can’t work, but so far I haven’t seen it working.”
Until a better labeling system can advertise diverse production methods as ethical, or until Fair Trade becomes a more transparent, locally customized system, coffee lovers must be wary. Conscientious drinkers should seek retailers that reveal details beyond the lucrative little Fair Trade stamp – like the regional production methods and labor conditions determining the price of their beans. This switch could be as easy as visiting a few websites and asking the right questions.
Meanwhile, As Green as it Gets will slowly fight coffee market mystification one pound at a time, waking up the world with their sustainable, delicious, and truly fair coffee.
For more information on As Green as it Gets, you can visit their website at: