Why Fair Trade Matters

By Dean Cycon

In the hyper-caffeinated world of coffee marketing, it is very difficult to tell the truth from a load of beans. Most marketing materials are prepared with the sole goal of increasing sales, rather than informing or educating consumers as to the real qualities of the product or of the lives of the people who provide it.

One could easily be forgiven for believing that all coffee farmers are smiling Juan Valdez types, happily trotting down the mountain with their mules, on their way to deliver beans directly to the consumer. And why are they always immaculately dressed in white with a well-pruned mustache?

While there certainly are happy, well-fed farmers in the coffee world, they are mostly the ones who own large farms and have high degrees of education and access to credit. The overwhelming majority of coffee farmers are poor, have little opportunity for education, and scrape by on small plots of land no bigger than the front lawns of many suburban American homes (sans the frog pond). These farmers are at the low end of a commodity chain that prices their product in accordance with the speculative calculations of financial houses and investment firms on a frothy trading floor in New York—unrelated to the actual costs of production and any sense of a reasonable profit for the farmers. At the village level, most farmers let their beans go to local middlemen (called coyotes in Latin America) who pay pennies for what we end up paying a dozen dollars for at the store.

There is an alternative for the small farmers of the world, a way to realize meaningful prices for their labors, a way to realize cherished dreams of education for their kids and sufficient food on the table. That’s what Fair Trade is all about, and it is the most tangible result of the work we Fair Traders do, and some of the most gratifying that I have seen during my years of javatrekking. 

Fair Trade also offers farmers pre-financing of coffee purchases. This means that when a farmer asks, a Fair Trade buyer is supposed to pay as much as 60% of the contract up front, instead of waiting months until the coffee ships from the coffeelands. Not all buyers provide pre-financing, regardless of the flowery language in many marketing brochures (yes, Fair Traders puff, too). But it is a growing aspect of Fair Trade business, and it provides farmers with essential money needed to harvest and process their new crop—or, frankly, to feed their families until the rest of the money comes in. When pre-financing isn’t available, farmers have to borrow from local banks or coyotes at rates anywhere from 10 to 30% per month.Fair Trade guarantees a minimum price of $1.90 per pound (for certified organic coffees, which is all we buy at Dean’s Beans) when the quirky world commodity price falls below that figure. During the early years of the new millennium, the world price fell as low as 35 cents—barely half of what it took farmers to produce the beans. When the market price rises above the floor, Fair Trade always adds 20 cents, thus giving farmers an incentive to stay in the system when the market gets a little more real.

But money is not the most important part of Fair Trade. Farmers are also required by Fair Trade to organize themselves into democratic, transparent cooperatives. These structures offer the first opportunity for most farmers to have a say in their own governance. This has an especially significant impact for women, whose voice in management is not often heard in rural, Third World communities. About half of the co-ops that I deal with are run by women. And all of these women juggle motherhood, baking cookies, and running complex farmer organizations with astonishing efficiency and heart. Fair Trade has also opened the door for farmers to meet and work with a host of great development organizations in the areas of health care, education, and alternative income generation.

I have worked on the ground with coffee communities in a dozen countries since 1989 and can testify to the real impact Fair Trade has on the lives of the farmers and their families.

But let me be real. Less than half of the coffee from Fair Trade–certified cooperatives gets sold as Fair Trade. The rest gets sold under conventional pricing, which does not give a farmer much to feed his family, and certainly doesn’t give the community enough to build a school, a well, or a health clinic. This is not the farmer’s fault. It is the same coffee grown in the same manner.

The problem is that most people in the coffee industry are not willing to recognize Tadesse, Salim, Esperanza, and the other farmers as true partners in our businesses—they are simply cheap wage slaves to whom we can give pennies while selling their coffee at inflated prices. It is not an economic issue—even at our higher-than-Fair-Trade-prices paid to farmers we make a very good living. It is not a quality issue—non–Fair Trade roasters are buying the same beans as we are from Oromia and Pangoa Co-ops, they are just not paying the price. It is not an availability issue—80% of the Oromia crop is out there waiting. It is first and foremost an ethical issue, plain and simple.

So take a look deep into your coffee cup. Behind the aroma, the acidity, and the body lay the real lives of farmers and their families. The choices we make at the supermarket and the café have immediate and profound impacts on almost 30 million people around the globe, on their ability to drink clean water, to educate their kids, and to dream of better lives. Fair Trade works. Help make it happen.

Lawyer, community organizer, environmental and indigenous rights activist and Fair Trade pioneer Dean Cycon is the founder and CEO of Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee. The company was founded in 1993 to model business as a vehicle for progressive social, ecologic and economic change throughout Asia, Africa and the Americas.

For more information about Fair Trade Certification and to find certified products visit these organizations:

Fair Trade Federation

 Fairtrade America

 Fair for Life