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Last Updated: 06. February 2019

Fair Trade Coffee Beans - Just a Rubber Stamp?

Coffee _beans _and _mug

Fair-Trade coffee is certainly not a new topic, but yet sustainable coffee beans account for only a portion of coffee purchased. Many retailers have tried to make a difference by opting for certified “fair-trade” coffee suppliers, but whether these changes can be evident on the ground is questionable. Therefore, it is important to do the necessary research when you are purchasing coffee when dealing with your coffee supplier. Often enough, “Fair-Trade” is fast becoming a rubber stamp for good practices.

Technified Coffee Production

The push for “technified” farming means that farmers are forced to rely on single crop coffee to be relevant in the global commodities market. Technified coffee production may look more like the “traditional” option like large, expansive wheat or soybean farms; but in actual fact, coffee production doesn’t need this degree of open space. If anything, it creates unnecessary pressure on peasant farms who can only utilize a small plot of land, and it also poses significant ecological implications due to the amount of water used for these crops.

Coffee beans are actually grown under fruit tree canopies. By using fruit trees, farmers can also gain an alternative income source, as well as providing habitat for migrating birds. Using technified beans needs more water to grow as well as other resources. If farmers are reliant on single-crop practices, then this makes them more vulnerable to significant swings in the market.

Assessing Good Coffee Beans

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Fair trade labels, therefore can bring out more pressures out of farming than intended. So how do we ascertain the degree of sustainability or the “goodness” of coffee suppliers? Most of our assessments come from technologies and labels so that consumers can make decision with a degree of agency. Product rating sites such as the GoodGuide allows consumers to assess sustainable practices of coffee production of particular brands. It also allows people to accrue information about global supply chains so you know the process of how your coffee beans end up in your mug.

While sites like this can also end up with imperfect or often opaque results, there are still merits. For instance, its product traceability is achieved based on product searches, so it can actually gather a large degree of information about a single product. This overrides the process of greenwashing by fair trade labels, which can only certify social and environmental practices at the initial point of purchase between the farmer and the importer. The GoodGuide can track policies and practices through different points of purchase and can capture the complexity of the entire global supply chain.

Towards “Better” Coffee: What Does this Actually Entail?

Higher coffee consumption in society also means that people demand high-quality organic coffee. It also means that producers and buyers have more direct network relationships, and it creates democratic governance. Organic certifications mean higher standards for farmers, which means carrying out the following tasks:Organic _coffee _farming

  • Constantly prune coffee and shade trees
  • Volunteer labor for collective projects to accommodate additional volume
  • Periodically renovate parcels
  • Replace coffee fields with resistant crop varieties, which can withstand rust 
  • Attain high-volumes of organic fertilizer, which is carried in hundred pound packs up winding footpaths in high-altitude fields 
  • Work periodic overnight shifts in the wet mill during coffee harvest

Hence, it is important that fair-trade practices ensure that coffee farmers are afforded negotiative power and fair prices. Fortunately, fair-trade coffee beans are attractive to companies because it ensures them access to multiyear contracts with more security against volatile markets. This is also guaranteed at a premium price. Interesting, what was initially a not for profit scheme, has suddenly included for-profit actors that sell labelled products.

This is a slippery slope because the very companies that label their coffee beans as organic and fair trade, and offer some degree of transparency, can be easily co-opted by the very market forces they seek to overcome. This brings about questions of whether coffee producers in the global South really have a place in decision-making processes. The fact that these processes are so complex, doesn’t make it easy for consumers to make the “right” choice, which is why institutionalizing technologies like GoodGuide are a significant first step to changing consumer behaviour.

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