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The Buzz on Fair Trade Coffee

Daily Encounters

By Arianne R. Cohen

Before college, I didn’t drink coffee. I found the brown brew to be an unconvincing substitute for the sweet creamy goodness of hot cocoa, which I drank by the quart. By October of freshman year, I was hooked on java, creating daily 30-ounce concoctions of freeze-dried instant coffee, powdered creamer and Sweet’n’ Low, made with my bathroom sink water and an illegal microwave. My freshmen roommates gagged in horror; in retrospect, I am surprised that I did not die from these mixtures.

I have since developed taste, which is, I think, the natural result of four college years of sub-par coffee, alcohol and everything else. I have moved on to more complex beans like Toscanini’s “Dancing Goats,” and my very own coffee grinder. In the future, when I have a kitchen, I expect to be one of those annoying people who only purchases overpriced beans in air-tight bags and small quantities, and balks in horror at the idea of pre-ground coffee.

Alas, my joyful habit of coffee drinking has been tinged with the pang of shame I now feel when I stop at a café to indulge my addiction, with the knowledge that my purchase is not helping the poor starving coffee farmers of the world. The “Fair Trade” seal is rarely on the pot or bag that I buy, and at the crack of dawn when I’ve just awoken or have yet to sleep, my yen for a good brew is much stronger than my remorse for Guatemala. It is the typical American consumer conundrum: what matters for me right now, versus what matters for everyone else in the world whom I will never meet.

Of course, this conundrum exhibits itself in my life as a severe guilt complex. It whittles away at me from the headlines, and does so frequently because coffee is the second-largest world trade commodity, and America is the world’s biggest importer. The problem is this: to meet production costs alone, coffee farmers need to be paid $0.80 per pound of coffee. Yet the going market rate is around $0.50 per pound, with some farmers receiving less than $0.25, with no means for negotiation. Fair Trade certification requires buyers to pay $1.26 per pound, much of which is still lost to middlemen.

Though I like to point fingers at large Western corporations whenever possible, the recent plight of 25 million starving coffee farmers is not the conglomerates’ fault. The crisis is the result of the end of the International Coffee Agreements, which allotted each country a maximum quota of coffee production. When these rules went by the wayside in a 1989 gale of post-Communist love, world coffee production went haywire. Brazil and Vietnam began producing madly, flooding the market with excess coffee. Prices worldwide plummeted, creating the current scenario, where coffee farmers are paid significantly less than the cost of production and are often forced to sell their land to large, environmentally horrendous agribusinesses.

Adding to the fray, coffee consumption is on the wane worldwide. In response, I am on a personal mission to reverse the trend. Last month I went to a doctor’s appointment, and while holding my travel mug, admitted that I drink 3 cups of coffee a day. My doctor asked, “Is that the cup?” I said yes. She pointed out that it was an 18-ounce mug, and the equivalent of nine cups a day. I told her that it was Fair Trade coffee, and healthy for the world.

Of course, the major coffee buyers of the world—Nestle controls half the market, followed by Proctor & Gamble—are not off the hook. Their fault is in treating coffee as a commodity market item, and not as the result of quantifiable human labor. Farmers are not being paid enough to survive, while buyers and middlemen are making off like bandits. This is ethically wrong from any angle, especially considering that fair prices for coffee labor and production can be cleanly calculated.

The solution is simple: rather than hiding, companies should take this as an opportunity for positive media attention by offering consumers Fair Trade options. Embracing social activism when under storm is always a positive way to increase business, and Fair Trade coffee is comparable to the price of gourmet coffee anyway—at Starbucks, a pound of Holiday Blend beans are $9.95, compared to Fair Trade at $11.45, and $13 for specialty mixtures. Consumers understand what the extra charge is for and deserve the option in the marketplace. Thanks to the Harvard Fair Trade Initiative, Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) now serves Fair Trade in the dining halls twice a week, though given the minimal price difference, HUDS needs to start serving Fair Trade daily. Students deserve the choice, and heck, it would be a moral boost to know that we’ve done something useful for the world by 10 a.m.

The key to Fair Trade success is not to slander companies for their bad habits (like Starbucks, the only major specialty coffee buyer that won’t certify that five percent of its beans are Fair Trade), but to encourage them to offer more Fair Trade products. If Fair Trade were on brew every time I opened my cup, I would drink it. Regular Fair Trade purchases and suggestion box comments will do the trick, because rather than a movement of noise-making, this is a movement of expressing consumer interest—the companies are there, after all, to meet consumer needs. Coffee addicts of America, carry on with Fair Trade love.

Arianne R. Cohen ’03 is a women’s studies concentrator in Leverett House. This is her last column of the semester.

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