Over the past couple of decades we consumers have become increasingly aware of how our purchasing affects the world. From destroying a rainforest we may have never heard of to forcing children into unfair employment, what we purchase can have a detrimental impact. Now, I understand that the thought of us individually having this kind of power sounds like the height of hubris, but I really believe that we have simply been naive since the Industrial Revolution (i.e. the historical examples of the rubber industry and the not so historical examples of the chocolate and garment industries). The agricultural industry has certainly not been excempt from exploitation and has in many cases been a leader in destroying the environment. Coffee, for instance, became a cash crop over the past century and has since faced a corporate explosion due to consumer demand. Unfortunately such an explosion, combined with traditional capitalist principles, meant that companies drove down production costs any way possible, including clear cutting environments and finding the cheapest labor possible. This also led to the proliferation of an inferior product, as major coffee companies found that it was easier and cheaper to produce robusto species of bean instead of arabica.
Fortunately we no longer have to accept products that are inferior, environmentally destructive, and that keep families in poverty. With the advent of mass communication, particularly the internet, we now have the ability to change things. There are many organizations out there trying to show ordinary consumers that their purchasing can have an extraordinary impact, either for good or ill.
One organization that is making a big difference, particularly in the coffee world, is Transfair USA.
Transfair certifies different products that meet rigid standards that not only improve the environment but help coffee (and other products) producing families climb out of poverty. They do this in several different ways, the highlights of which include improving environmental standards, organizing farming families into democratically controlled cooperatives, and securing a base price for coffee.
Improving environmental standards – Unfortunately, for the sake of profit, large coffee plantations tend to clear cut plots of land in order to grow larger amounts of coffee. Traditionally this has not been the case as coffee, historically, has always been shade grown. The cleared fields allow for higher and quicker yields but tend to produce an inferior product (most of the time producing robusto). It also faces problems similar to other single crop fields, the need to continually fertilize and the use of pesticides. Shade grown coffee is both better for the environment and produces a superior product. It is better for the environment because it is not a monoculture and therefore requires less fertilizers and pesticides. This method also provides a much more natural habitat for wildlife. It is a superior product because, like wine, coffee tends to pick up the flavors of its environment. Thus when it is grown near cocoa or a type of fruit, those flavors make it into the bean.
Organizing families into democratically controlled cooperatives – The majority of coffee throughout the world is being produced by small families (which is one of the main reasons that discretionary purchasing in this area can make such a huge difference). What Transfair seeks to do is to organize these farmers into cooperatives that allow them to fight for higher prices for their products and improve their agricultural techniques. The cooperatives are then able to pool their money and democratically decide how to improve their communities with their profits. This also protects these families from being taken advantage of by middlemen who, in any other situation, would be necessary to get the beans to market.
Securing a base price for coffee – Coffee prices worldwide are at an all time low. This has been tragic for families all over the world who make a living producing coffee. So Transfair has set a floor price for beans (currently at $1.25 per pound) that allows farmers to create a sustainable way of life. Fortunately this is bringing many families out of poverty.
I first really began to seriously consider the importance of fair trade after hearing a podcast by John Sage, one of the cofounders of Pura Vida Coffee, from an address he gave at Stanford University (iTunes Store, search “How Do You Take Your Coffee?”). John explains a lot of what I wrote here, but then follows it up with a concrete example. He tells the story of a woman that was part of a cooperative in Central America that Pura Vida buys its coffee from directly and the difference that Fair Trade has made in her family. They flew this particular woman up to a conference they were hosting at a university in Seattle and the woman was able to tell the college students her story. She told them that because of fair trade prices they were now able to take their children out of the fields and put them back into the classroom and that perhaps one day her children would have the opportunity to sit where those college students were sitting. Wow! That is the power of discretionary purchasing. By simply buying coffee for a couple dollars more than what we would normally spend we are able to help families across the world take their children out of the coffee fields and put them where every child belongs, in a classroom. We are able to help families take the first steps out of poverty and into a sustainable way of life.
Please, listen to the podcast I listed above and further educate yourself about the benefits of Fair Trade and begin to help make a difference! We can make a difference – we just have to make the choice (but now that you know, aren’t you making a choice either way?).