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Coffee Coffee Coffee

May 4, 2009

daily_apr07_2006_peetsAs many people reading this know, I worked in the coffee business for a very long time. There are those far and wide that have been put to sleep to my rants about good espresso vs. great espresso. Though I still judge a coffee house by how high-pitched the sound of the steaming milk is when I walk in, that is not the topic for today. Today I want to begin a discussion about navigating the labels. You know what I’m talking about….USDA Organic, Fair Trade, Bird Friendly, Shade Grown, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ Certified….and that’s just the ones you have probably heard of. There are more in the pipeline…waiting patiently in the wings for you to get bored or over-saturated with the current offerings…so they can tell you what to buy. I work in this business, and I have no idea how any of these organizations expect consumers to understand why one is better than the other, and/or what they all mean. For the next few posts, I will cover each of the labels individually (’cause you will get SO bored if I try to make your read it all at once).

Before I jump into what the difference is between all of these, I want to begin by saying that they are all useful, all well-intentioned, and are all helping to solve a problem that has truly global implications. Though I have done significant work with UTZ, I do try not hold any biases, and only want to tell you what I know from the inside of a VERY complex industry.

To understand the solutions (that are available right now), first you need a picture of the problem. Coffee is the second most highly traded commodity in the world, second only to oil. When I talk about ‘farmers’ or ‘producers’ I am talking about literally millions of people in more than thirty countries, that speak hundreds of different languages, and deal with an ever growing and dangerously diverse set of political, environmental, and socio-economical problems that are unique to every single region. Almost all of these growers live in total poverty. It is estimated that more than fifty sets of hands will touch every single bean from its origin to your cup. It is one of the most difficult crops to grow, in some of the harshest and most remote corners of the planet, and is shipped all over the world where it is then roasted by master craftspeople who train for years for the privelege, and yet, we pay an average of just $0.08 per cup. When was the last time you drank a $0.08 glass of wine? For that matter when was the last time you could but $0.08 worth of soda? And soda is pretty much just suger and water mixed in a big bucket by a machine. The one thing I am hardline on is that good coffee should cost more. Bad coffee is a whole seperate issue.

Ok, so back to the labels. The first program I am covering is Fair Trade:


This label means that a farm has paid several thousand dollars to become certified, and that they have agreed to adhere to certain standards for environmental, social, and fiscal standards set forth by the Fair Trade Labeling Organization. The basis of FT’s program is that when a consumer sees the FT label, they know that the maker of the product was paid a fair wage. A key point on this is that that price is SET BY FAIR TRADE. It is NOT contingent on quality, consistency, pesticide use, or environmental considerations. Their system is designed to stop the coffee market from crashing again, as it did in the 90’s, when Vietman flooded the market with low quality coffee, and the price for all grades (quality levels) dropped to catastrophically low levels, destroying the livlihoods of farmers worldwide. Think of it as an insurance policy for the industry. If prices were to drop, those that are FT Certified would not be subject to the drop because they would have purchase agreements with exporters and roasters that would require the set price be paid, not matter what the market does.

A few other good things to know about FT:

1. Farmers must be a member of a democratically-run growing co-op. Farmers must be between four and eleven acres in size, thus excluding very small holders, as well as huge farms that cause much more environmental damage.

2. It is also important to note that the premium price paid by the consumer for FT coffee goes to the co-op, NOT THE FARMER. The co-op then takes their administration fee and distributes the rest to farmers. There is no system in place to monitor how the money is spent.

3. Fair Trade and Organic ARE NOT LINKED IN ANY WAY. If you want Organic, Fair Trade coffee, you must look for both labels.

4. Fair Trade only requires that 50% of the contents in their coffee bags is actually certified. Makes you wonder what the other 50% is, doesn’t it?

Tune in tomorrow for explanations of Organic and Rainforest Alliance! Please don’t hesitate to ask any questions on this topic. I am leaving a lot out, and am happy to fill in the blanks for anyone who would like more detailed info. Or….check out this other blog….this guy said it all really well (and really thoroughly).

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Melody permalink
    May 4, 2009 8:55 pm

    I’m thrilled to be learning more about all of this! There is so much I would like to know (and act on!) but time is limited and I do not know where to start, Thanks for pointing me in the right direction!

  2. May 5, 2009 1:38 am

    Know anything about FREE trade vs. FAIR trade? I know that a lot of folks see free trade as a smokescreen term to hide the fact that it’s evil, but I honestly never learned much about it. It might be good to make the distinction since they are so close in the way they sound.

    • defininggreen permalink*
      May 5, 2009 10:22 am

      Good point! After I finish the coffee series, I will write a post about confusing terms. This is a very juicy one…that will require a bit of homework for me. I’ll keep you, uh….posted?

  3. Suzi Sherman permalink
    May 6, 2009 5:42 am

    great article. only 50% huh, spooky…

    I used to manage a coffee shop (back in the day) and would go on a rant (as angsty coffee girls do) about how coffee should cost more. It is a craft and an art and so much goes into the cup you are drinking.

    Suzi Sherman

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