Conscious Coffee: Discovering Fair Trade and Organic Java

by Susan MacVittie

Sipping on a morning cup of Jo goes beyond the quick fix of liquid wake-up – it's now a reflection of the drinker's ethical values. In the 1980s a rise in ethical consumerism, driven by issues like child labour and environmental degradation launched the branding of organic, fair trade and union-made products. For coffee-drinkers this means that there is now a befuddling assortment of coffee to choose from. Knowing which one is the real ethical deal is a lesson in the coffee commodity chain.

Bean 101

Coffee has always been a boom and bust crop in LatinAmerica and Africa with little of the wealth going towards the growers, pruners and pickers. Although it is the second most traded commodity next to oil on the global market, in many countries a days' wages for picking coffee beans wouldn't buy a fancy cup of java at your favourite coffee shop.

Traditionally, coffee is produced on small farms under the forest canopy along with other crops without the need for chemical fertilizers. The shading trees fix nitrogen in the soil, and their leaf litter is home to beneficial insects that devour nematodes – soil borne organisms that attack roots. The canopy also provides rich habitat for species, especially migratory birds. As these small farms began to be absorbed by large mono-cropped chemical-dependant plantations the fair trade movement arose in the United States and Europe out of a concern for the workers and the environment. Since that time there are various organizations that administer and regulate ethical coffee certification which has led to a plethora of labeling schemes to assist consumers in their decision-making.


Organic coffee is grown without the use of synthetic substances such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Because it helps to reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizers, a majority of organic coffee is shade grown, which keeps the birds singing and is a factor that often improves taste. The shade slows down the growth of coffee, which results in the production of more sugars and natural chemicals in the bean responsible for the desired acidity. Shade-tree grown coffee that is certified organic and meets the requirements of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Conservatory may use the Bird Friendly logo.

As of July 2009, those who want to market and trade organic products in Canada, including imported goods, must meet the Canadian Organic Standards (COS). To meet COS the product must contain at least 95% of organic ingredients and be certified according to the recommendation of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Certified organic products must bear the name of the certification body but the use of the official Canada Organic Logo is voluntary, so it will not appear on all certified organic products.

In the meantime look for these organic certification logos – Demeter, USDFA, EcoCert, QMI Organic, and Quality Assurance International (QAI). Organic certification is a production process certification, not just the certification of the end product.

In addition, decaffeinated organic coffee must use a certified organic decaffeination process to maintain the organic integrity of the beans. One of the most popular processes uses only water rather than chemicals to extract the caffeine. Coffee using this method is labeled Swiss Water process.

Fair Trade

The coffee crash of 2001 reminded the 25 million coffee farmers around the world how volatile the international coffee market can be. Almost overnight international prices crashed and many farmers were forced out of business.

Fair trade certification focuses on labour and trade standards to provide small farmer co-operatives a guaranteed price above the conventional market. It establishes a direct trade relationship with suppliers in developing countries, eliminating the middlemen. Fair trade also levies a small premium that must be dedicated to improving quality of life including environmental, sustainable practices with no child labour.

TransFair Canada manages the Fair Trade Certified logo in Canada and is a non-profit that provides third party product certification. It is one of 17 national Fair Trade Labelling initiatives worldwide operating under the Fair Trade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). FLO is the international body that regulates Fair trade practices and they define a farm as a family farm that is part of a large democratic co-operative which cannot be structurally dependant on hired labour.

Green Gimmick

The growing trend in consumer concern for ethical business practices has not gone unnoticed by the multi-nationals who have historically made their money off the backs of underpaid labourers and fast-growing cash crops. The coffee hucksters at Starbucks are now one of the largest buyers of Fair Trade Certified coffee – doubling its purchases to 40 million pounds in 2009 and even the champion of ‘fair' faux pas, McDonald's, now serves organic, Fair Trade coffee in some of its Eastern US locations. To some in the Fair Trade movement, the new competition like Starbucks, is using Fair Trade as a marketing ploy, adopting the concept as a ‘brand' by offering a single Fair Trade Certified blend out of dozens in their store. As corporations get more involved there is fear that some Fair Trade provisions may be de-emphasized to accommodate big business.

The Challenges

Not having the certification logos on the coffee bag doesn't mean it is unethical. Many farmers whose coffee is perfectly deserving of being Certified Organic, are suffering because they simply cannot afford the certification fees. Indeed, most can't afford chemical pesticides. (The global credit crunch has prompted Brazilian farmers to use less fertilizer which market analysts predict will lead to smaller crops and a price increase of 26%.) As well, the requirements for certifiable production operation can be complicated. In Uganda, most commercial organic coffee farms begin with donor support to cover technical support costs.

In addition, Fair Trade coffee co-operatives represent a narrow swath of coffee farmers. Many growers are not eligible for Fair Trade certification because they are not part of a co-operative, a Fair Trade non-negotiable that leaves out small independent farms, family owned farms and any multinational that treats its workers well.  Fair Trade prices are still not necessarily high enough to bring farmers out from poverty because the Fair-Trade-Organic price advantage has not kept up to inflation. Also, Fair Trade pricing does not take into account any difference in cost of production or cost of living between regions. Others have criticized Fair Trade's price-driven model, claiming it unfairly rewards coffee with low production costs instead of coffee that tastes better. The Fair Trade pricing works well for commercial quality coffee, but high quality coffee is not rewarded, unless the buyer wants to purchase at a higher price (which conscientious buyers often do).

Buying Fair Trade and Certified Organic is a good way to ensure that you are helping farmers and the environment. But it's not the only bean on the block. There are also a host of non-profit organizations who travel to coffee-growing regions and engage in direct trade with farmers. One such organization, World Community Development Educational Society (WCDES), in Courtenay, BC established a direct trade relationship with coffee growers in Nicaragua and sells their organic, fairly traded, bird-friendly coffee. The farmers are guaranteed a fair price and a share of the profits go back into community development projects.

In the end, certified or not certified, it is the personal connection between the buyer and the farmer that ensures the quality of the product and the quality of life for the grower. These ‘ethical' relationships percolate through our communities to ensure our java is fair to the last drop.

Canadian Organic Growers,
TransFair Canada,

[From WS June/July 2009]

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