Since we moved into our new apartment we now have a really adorable breakfast/coffee nook in our new kitchen, and both my husband and I have been trying to take the time to look out over the quiet morning city, and really enjoy our coffee. Both of us only ever have one cup a day. It's not something we rely on for energy, but has become more a part of our morning routine to be savored and enjoyed...the way it was always meant to be.
What is funny though is that as much as we really enjoy coffee now, neither one of us really were coffee drinkers until just about 3 years ago when I went to work on a food security project in Guatemala. The coffee was absolutely incredible, and I got to witness first hand what the coffee industry looks like in one of the largest coffee export countries in the world.
After spending some time talking to coffee farmers while living in Guatemala, and speaking with a female farmer whose family ran an entirely organic coffee plantation, I began to realize that the coffee we know and love in the United States is filled with a whole lot of corruption, poor treatment of coffee laborers, and lots and lots of pesticides. My eyes became wide open to the true story behind what may arguably be the worlds most popular beverage, and I really started to understand just how little most consumers know about the source of the coffee they consume every - single - day.
I also just so happened to be living in Guatemala during one of the worst coffee roya (rust) years in recent decades. Roya is a type of disease that quickly can sweep through an area and devastate a coffee crop. This roya caused many farmers at the time to lose their farms, and resulted in more than 1 billion in crop loses, and huge economic strains on hundreds of thousands of people who were left unemployed.
This only further planted in my mind how important coffee is for the livelihood of people who live and work in coffee export countries, and how important it is that we try and support a system that provides as much autonomy, financial stability, and supports a healthy livelihood of the farmers...not the giant corporations who take advantage of them.
Because the vast majority of American adults drink coffee every single day, the power to create real change in this industry is possible, and the outcomes would be life changing for the farmers and small-producers who bring us the coffee we love to sip on each and every morning.
Once I got back to the United States I was totally hooked on Guatemalan coffee, and also entirely incapable of viewing this beverage the same way I did before. Every time I would buy a bag of Guatemalan coffee I would see the faces of the people that I had met, and knew that I wanted to support their livelihood in the best possible way.
So I started looking into fair-trade coffee companies that worked with small local co-ops, which help enable small producers to gain access to the global coffee market. By supporting companies that are working with local co-ops you are more directly supporting the financial livelihood, fair treatment, and future of the farm workers children, who are more likely to go to school than work on the coffee plantation.
While fair trade labeling doesn't necessarily mean that the coffee produced is also organic, fair trade companies are required to ensure that farmers are taking safe precautions while working, and this includes their level of exposure to harmful pesticides.
Unfortunately, in recent years fair trade has come under scrutiny for the positive impact it truly is making, and organizations such as Fair Trade USA have made advancements to jeopardize the fair trade movement by chipping away at standards and principles that eliminate small farmers from the business model, lower standards, and bring large producers into the equation.
This is not to say that all fair-trade focused businesses are working in this capacity. Many continue to follow the standards of Fair Trade International and focus even further on direct-trade between farmers and importers to provide the most autonomy to the farmer, and encourage transparency, fair labor, safe working conditions, and positive environmental practices throughout the supply chain. Equal Exchange recently wrote a wonderful article all about this model, you can find it
So moral of the story, purchase coffee from companies with very transparent fair trade/direct trade standards. Work will smaller coffee producing companies, and do your research if you are thinking about purchasing a coffee product with the Fair Trade USA label.
The best option however, will always be to support small-producers who practice organic farming techniques, which is the only way to ensure that the farmers are not being exposed to pesticides, the land and local communities are not being affected by the chemicals, and you are not being exposed to pesticides yourself. Since most people do drink coffee every single day, and usually multiple cups, I do believe that the best option to look for when purchasing your coffee is a coffee companies that are both fair trade and organic.
However, especially when buying from smaller-producers in countries where farmers are very financially insecure, it is important to note that many small-producers cannot afford the organic label, but are producing their coffee using traditional, organically grown techniques. All you have to do is send an email or ask your local coffee roaster whether the coffee is grown organically and most of the time you will be able to get a quick answer.
where can you buy fair-trade coffee?
So where can you find this kind of ethical coffee? Since small independent coffee shops have begun to gain more and more popularity, many times you can find coffee that has been sourced from small-producers at your local independent coffee shop. Just ask the barista and usually they will know a great deal about the source of their coffee. I personally buy my fair-trade/organic coffee locally from two different coffee shops here in Boston.
While I always think that it is best to look into local coffee shops/roasters in your area who are supporting a more sustainable, and ethical coffee industry, I also realize that sometimes you are at the grocery store and just need more coffee, or you may be living in a part of the country where your closest coffee shop is miles away and a Starbucks. So with that in mind, here are some of my favorite fair trade coffee companies that you can purchase in many grocery stores and online to be sent straight to your home:
- Equal Exchange: Equal exchange has been doing incredible things in the fair-trade coffee industry for more than 25 years. They work with local co-ops to ensure that the farmers are being directly supported as much as possible.
- Trader Joes Fair Trade Organic Guatemalan Coffee: Trader Joes has many fair-trade and organic coffee options in their stores but one of my favorites is there Fair Trade and Organic Guatemalan Coffee (maybe I'm biased). This coffee has been sustainably farmed, and is family-owned.
Some people may say that choosing to purchase fair-trade coffee isn't going to make a difference, or that there are many issues with the fair trade system itself, and they are right on that last part...there are issues with the fair trade label like all overarching entities. But ultimately when it comes down to it, supporting small-producers that are part of fair trade organizations is something that has so much good at its core. Companies who are supporting these co-op's are trying to do better, and that really is what matters.
And as far as whether or not one person buying fair-trade coffee can make a difference, well I am an eternal optimist and will always believe in the power one person can make to help make the world a better place. People who choose not to see the world that way...well I have compassion for them in my heart, because acknowledging your place, and impact in this big beautiful world is intoxicating and empowering, and leads to so much incredible self-discovery that I truly couldn't imagine thinking any other way.