Conscientious Consumers: Making a Statement with Your Shopping Cart
I recently bought a 2.5 pound bag of Fair Trade Colombian Supremo at Sam’s Club for $14.98. I did so for two reasons. First, because I love the taste of the coffee: Arabica beans handpicked in the northern Andes Mountains and roasted according to a centuries-old tradition. Second, I was hoping to contribute to the greater good of all the farmers involved in producing this coffee. My bag of coffee advertises “better business for better living" and claims that “fair trade raises incomes and living standards by guaranteeing fair prices, direct trade, environmental sustainability, community development and fair, safe labor conditions.” I set out to find out how the system works and get a realistic assessment of its success.
The intentions of the Fair Trade program are to produce quality goods, while improving the lives of the small farmers and their families. Switching to organic farming, maintaining healthy soil and implementing sustainable practices are also encouraged. The program strives to open doors for small farmers by giving them access to organized co-ops, agricultural expertise and distribution partnerships, as well as a guaranteed floor price, resulting in a more stable income in times of volatile markets. A small premium attached to each fair trade purchase goes into a pool where the co-ops decide democratically on how best to use it. In the past, it has been used for improvements in educational projects in communities, improvements in health, or farm development and equipment and better housing. Instead of relying on aid, a market-based approach is used to give farmers fair prices, safe conditions and resources for fair, healthy and sustainable living.
Fairtrade International sets the fair trade standards, and oversees certification of fair trade products around the world. They ensure that environmental, labor and developmental standards are met, and provide independent auditors to certify producers, including Fair Trade USA and 24 other international organizations. Over the past 20 years of Fair Trade certification, a multitude of products have earned this certification including coffee, cotton, honey, nuts, grains, wine, bodycare, apparel, sports balls, fresh fruits and more. The products come from countries with low to medium development status in Africa, Asia, Oceania, Latin America and the Caribbean. Fair trade sales are projected to reach $9 billion in 2012 and over $20 billion by 2020. Over 1.2 million producers were certified in 70 countries in 2011, a nod to the expanding market and continued interest by consumers. There are now more than 10,000 Fair Trade Certified products worldwide, with more than 7,000 available in the U.S. Look for the seal (above) which is new as of 2012 and identifies products that are Fair Trade Certified.
As with most things, there is a yin-yang effect on attempts to control prices, supply and demand, and the process by which items get to market. Questions have surfaced about the quality of the products, the amount of money actually reaching the farmers, and whether the premiums paid are actually used to improve social conditions.
Fred Pearce wrote a book, Confessions of an Eco-Sinner, about a 100,000 mile journey to track where his “stuff” comes from. Fair Trade reality was questioned during his trip when a coffee farmer in Tanzania (who it was assumed, would be happy to be getting 20 cents over the current market price) stood up to ask how much a cup of coffee would cost in the shops in England. Upon discovering that the Arabica bean coffee farmers got $1.46 per pound while it sold for $12 per pound in England, a disillusionment bomb fell on the crowd. Their backbreaking work of planting, growing, depulping, picking, drying, carrying to market and bagging the coffee was rewarded with one seventh of the end price of the coffee sold. Consider the fact that one pound of coffee makes about 60 brewed cups, selling for about $1.50 in the States, and the divide looks much worse. Even the explanations for the price discrepancy, such as the need to cover the cost of curing, grading, packing, shipping, roasting, grinding, packaging, distributing, marketing and selling costs could do nothing to deflect the farmers’ disappointment.
That was the situation in 2008. Since then, coffee prices have risen to a 34-year high of $3 per pound, because of low supply and increasing demand around the world. Although higher prices benefit the farmers, there is a David vs. Goliath battle between the coffee giants who seek to push down prices and the little guys who are hoping for their fair share. Companies like CafeDirect are leading the way in protecting the interests of farmers, but consumers have to join in with their buying power to win the match.
So if you’re one to root for the underdog and ready to commit to living the Fair Trade lifestyle, check out the Valentine’s Day options for chocolates, flowers and gifts for all occasions. The little guys will thank you.
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