I’ll admit — I am a bit of a coffee snob. As a Seattle-to-D.C. transplant, I am the first among my friends to have an opinion about a coffee shop or a certain roast, and likely am not humble in expressing my opinion. However, a couple of weeks ago I was at a local coffee shop, and stumbled upon a new roast from a new coffee company in town called Redeeming Grounds. Sitting by the bag of beans was a stack of palm cards that said "cutting cocaine for coffee."
A Fair Trade State Of Mind
In my hometown, Madison, Wisconsin, hippie culture isn’t a fad fondly remembered; it’s an attitude that prevails, easily identified in the aisles of the Willy St. Co-op or in the local shops outnumbering the chains on State Street. As I grew up and found my home away from home in the numerous independent coffee shops, fair trade was a familiar term. I didn’t give it a second thought. It was just a part of the Madison culture that I love so much. People would rather go to Fair Trade Coffee than a chain coffee shop.
But I realize that this is a privilege, and that’s a problem. Why is fair trade so much more expensive than non-fair trade? The average coffee company charges 65 cents more for fair trade.
The basic premise of fair trade may give some explanation: fair trade means fair prices for the farmers and fair labor. There are no middlemen and the farmers receive more of the profit from their hard work. This doesn’t seem right; why should a system that promotes fair business practices be discouraged to consumers by price?
In a culture that already has a huge disconnect from the world around us, it’s important for Americans to realize the good that buying fair trade can do. Growing up in a city like Madison, or going to school in a city like Washington, D.C., imagining the lives of the farmers in Colombia, growing the coffee I drink, remains difficult. I have no real idea of what their daily lives entail, and neither do most Americans.
However, I do know that there is something fundamentally wrong with a system if we have to create a special specification for products that actually pay the people that created it fairly.
— Anna Sumi
As coffee consumers, we rarely think about how sustainably our coffee is sourced or all that it takes to get from crop to cup. We may know whether or not it is fair trade, and where the beans are from (because it’s often advertised that way), but that’s about it.
A typical supply chain for coffee is as follows: The bean starts with the farmer. They grow and harvest the bean, and then it is sent off to one or maybe multiple cooperatives. From the cooperatives the bean goes to a central exporting collector, who then ships the coffee, an importer picks it up, and it is then taken in many cases to a fair trade certifier. Then the bean goes to the commodity traders and hedgers, then to the industrial roaster, then to the labeler and sealer, and finally to the distributor that takes it to the store where you buy it.
At each point in the supply chain, the farmer loses money from his crop because money is going to each other cog in the supply chain. At many of these points, energy is also expended, contributing to further pollution.
Redeeming Grounds has significantly reduced all the points in the typical supply chain. They buy directly from the farmers, and the beans are shipped to them. They roast them in their own roasting facility, and label and package their coffee themselves. Then it is distributed to you.
Because Redeeming Grounds is a nonprofit, they give all their profit from the sale of the coffee directly to the farmers. With less cogs in the supply chain that suck money away from the farmers, and all the money from the sale of the coffee being funneled back to them, the farmers have a greater and more sustainable income that they can invest back into the community to build it up. And these communities do need to be built up, because they are riddled with the violence and destruction of guerrilla warfare.
As I sip from my coffee cup in the morning, I can know that not only are the beans I am drinking sustainably sourced and beyond fair trade, but they are also making a difference in the lives of farmers in Colombia who are combating deforestation, guerrilla violence, and the cultivation and sale of cocaine. I may still be labeled a coffee snob, but at least I am now a snob with a cause.