What’s in a Label? Understanding Fair Trade Coffee
Whether you’re browsing the offerings at your favorite local coffee roaster or looking for a bag of choice beans in the coffee section of your neighborhood grocery store, you’re bound to run across labels proclaiming their contents to be “fair trade.”
Most people are eager to see their dollars go to support a more just and equitable world, so it’s easy to understand why many coffee lovers prefer fair trade-certified coffee over products not certified as such.
But what does the fair trade label really say about your coffee beans?
How Fair Trade Came to Be
To understand the meaning of the fair trade label, it’s useful to know how it came to be. The Fair Trade International organization began certifying coffee back in 1998, and since then, they’ve expanded their certification process to offer their stamp of approval to ethically sourced tea, fruits, chocolate, and spices.
To be certified through the program, producers must conform to certain minimum standards with regard to sustainable agriculture, labor practices, waste disposal, and working conditions.
While a substantial portion of fair-trade certified coffee is organic, and most fair trade coffee is grown using some variation of shade growing or “bird-friendly” production methods, adhering to these standards is not a requirement for acquiring fair trade certification.
Generally speaking, it’s safe to assume that because fair trade coffee producers are guaranteed a minimum payment for their products, their coffee beans will be of a higher quality. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, of course, but many coffee lovers have found that to be the case, adding an extra incentive for choosing fair trade coffee beans.
A Shake-Up in the Fair Trade World
Back in 2011, the United States branch of Fair Trade International split from the international organization, and has since taken a parallel, but decidedly different course.
Fair Trade USA has decided to make their fair trade bona fides available to large coffee plantations, which were excluded from receiving certification under the standards of the international organization, in a policy designed to benefit small farmers and cooperatives.
Critics say the new U.S. Fair Trade standards open the doors even wider to large coffee producers whose trade avenues are already well established, snuffing one of the few advantages previously afforded small farmers and cooperatives.
Fair trade USA also permits certification for products only partially sourced under fair trade standards. In effect, a fair trade certified bag of coffee beans could hypothetically contain 50% fair-trade beans, and 50% beans from non-certified growers.
What Does It All Mean for You, Fellow Coffee Lover?
In the end, buying coffee with any fair trade label is probably better than purchasing uncertified coffee. If you want to make sure you’re only drinking coffee grown under the strictest fair trade standards, then you’ll want to source beans that bear the international Fair Trade label.
You may also want to consider purchasing coffee labeled “direct trade.” Coffee with this certification has been purchased directly from the grower, by your local roaster. If you live in a city with several popular and successful coffee chains, then direct trade coffee shouldn’t be too difficult to source.