Home » What is Fair Trade Coffee?

What does fair trade coffee really mean?

Have you ever seen that little “Fair Trade” or “Fair Trade International” label on your coffee bag and wondered, “What does that mean? How does Fair Trade even work?”

Well, I have. I had a vague idea of the fair trade concept, but just enough to get me confused. So, with my head all a-muddle, I decided that something as important as fair trade coffee needed to be explained in a short and digestible manner for all of us, so that we could purchase our coffee with a collectively clear conscience.

A Brief Definition of Fair Trade Coffee

There are two sides to high-quality coffee. On the one hand, there’s that damn delicious taste. We want it. We crave it. It ruins all other coffee for us.

On the other hand, true artisan coffee protects (rather than exploits) the earth and the coffee growers in the process of getting that incredible taste to you. And as it turns out, that second point is where the Fair Trade coffee standards come into play.

One way of understanding fair trade is to consider it as a partnership between coffee producers and coffee roasters to provide a living wage in return for a quality product.

Handful of coffee cherries

In practice, the basic definition of the fair trade certified label can be reduced to a concise statement. According to the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO):

Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade…

You can see the WFTO’s complete definition here (1). The Fair Trade certification symbolizes a set of standards championed by various producers, organizations, consumers, and companies. Their goal is equity, justice, and respect for markets and trade throughout the globe, with a special focus on the more disenfranchised areas of the Pacific, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa.

Breaking Down the Definition: What Exactly Are We Talking About Here?

Coffee farm

So, is Fair Trade Coffee just a respectful trade pact? What are we dealing with here, Wall Street traders? (Hint: The answer is no.)

While “Fair Trade” can sound like it’s focused on markets and dollars, the definition of fair trade practices boils down to a few larger issues:.

Here are a few things that fair trade standards result in:

They fight FOR income sustainability and AGAINST global poverty.

We want to make sure that we’re leaving those who gather our coffee with enough income to actually live their lives. Not necessarily in luxurious opulence. Just not in grief-stricken poverty, either (which is so often the case).

The goal is to pursue an equal exchange between growers and importers, as well as better working conditions for the people who grow and harvest our coffee.

They build equitable partnerships between producers and purchasers.

The direct trade relationship between small co-ops of coffee growers and the coffee companies that buy their produce.

In addition to a guaranteed minimum price, which creates a safety net in the case of a price drop, coffee growers are paid a Fairtrade Premium, which they invest in projects that support their communities and help protect the environment.

They strive for a greater level of justice in trade on an individual, as well as a community, level.

The effects of the Fair Trade model go beyond the people with boots on the ground actually picking coffee beans. When people pick coffee beans and are actually paid fairly, they go home and spend that money throughout their community, bettering the whole system in the process.

Fair Trade standards focus on minimizing damage to the environment from bad business practices.

When companies are focused entirely on the bottom dollar, they tend to take shortcuts to keep costs down in ways that can have bad (and even catastrophic) consequences for the environment.

The Fair Trade certification takes these factors into account and tries to limit them, instead focusing on environmental sustainability. And while Fair Trade certification doesn’t currently require organic certification, the two often go hand in hand. Here’s where you can learn about different coffee certifications.

The Impact of Fair Trade

To get a feel for the impact this movement is making, consider the fact that since 1998, nearly half a billion dollars have gone to benefit various producers directly, thanks to Fair Trade. You can get a further breakdown of some of these statistics on fairtradecertified.org’s “Why Buy Fair Trade” page (2) and ‘Our Impact’ page (3).

Last year alone, over one and a half billion farmers and workers were personally empowered by the more beneficial terms of the Fair Trade market.

So, we can see that Fair Trade brings with it an inherent craving. No, I’m not talking about that craving we all know for the coffee itself.

This one is stronger and much more primitive than the most ardent desire for a cup of coffee: No greedy exploitation, no unreasonable price hikes – just fair, honest labour and fair, honest prices. It’s really a very beautiful thing at its core.

What are Some Fair Trade Coffee Brands?

So, are you ready to buy fair trade coffee now? Here are a few Fair Trade certified brands of great coffee to consider.

  • Ethical Bean Coffee, with blends for every occasion.
  • Fair trade and certified organic blends and single origins from Level Ground. (Use code HG10 at checkout for a discount).
  • And for those of you watching your caffeine intake, here’s a Swiss water processed decaf dark roast from Kicking Horse Coffee.

And if none of those sound appealing, here’s a whole list of certified brands (4), Plus, you can always inquire at your local coffee shop to see what brands they recommend. If they don’t already support fair trade, you can use this as a chance to spread the word.

So, What is Fair Trade Coffee, Then?

Coffee sorting in Ethiopia

Let’s recap. Fair Trade coffee refers to coffee that has been grown and produced to Fair Trade Certified standards. What exactly are those “Fair Trade Certified” standards when it comes to coffee?

  • FOR income sustainability and AGAINST poverty when it comes to the coffee farmers.
  • Justice (on an individual as well as a community level) regarding how the harvested coffee is traded.
  • Minimizing damage to the environment from bad business practices on the coffee farms.
  • Demonstrating that empowering the coffee farmers through their work can be part of successful coffee production.

So, the next time you see that Fair Trade label on a bag of coffee beans, you’ll know you’re making a positive difference and buying beans that make the world a better place.

Frequently Asked Questions

Trade coffee is not the same thing as fair trade coffee. The former is a new coffee subscription service; the latter we just spoke about above. This is a common misconception.

The purpose of Fair Trade Coffee is to improve the lives of the people who grow coffee, often located in some of the poorest areas on the planet. By guaranteeing a fair (rather than exploitative) price for their beans, Fair Trade Coffee not only improves the quality of life for the coffee growers, but aids in the circulation of money throughout their communities.

Fair Trade coffee is not organic by policy, but they encourage environmentally sustainable practices for coffee growers. USDA Organic certification includes its own set of qualifications about the growing, fertilization, and pest control practices used by coffee growers. See this list for some of the best sustainable coffee brands.

The difference between Fair Trade and Ethical Trade is more than a difference of standards. The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) specifically works in partnership with groups around the world, helping them to find markets and achieve improved living standards for themselves and their communities. So while ethical trade is also concerned with equitable pricing for providers of coffee (and other commodities), Fair Trade goes beyond to work directly with providers and the places they live.

  1. Sarcauga, M. (2018, November 16). DEFINITION OF FAIR TRADE. Retrieved from https://wfto.com/who-we-are#defining-fair-trade
  2. Why Fair Trade – Why Buy Fair Trade. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.fairtradecertified.org/why-fair-trade/
  3. Fair Trade Impact – Impact of Fair Trade. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.fairtradecertified.org/what-we-do/our-impact/
  4. Fairtrade Coffee | Fairtrade America. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.fairtradeamerica.org/shop-fairtrade/fairtrade-products/coffee/
Julia Bobak
I love trail running, rock climbing, coffee, food, and my tiny dog — and writing about all of them. I start every morning with a fresh Americano from my home espresso machine, or I don’t start it at all.

Homegrounds is reader-supported. When you buy via the links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you. Learn more.