What is Fair Trade Coffee?

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 conscious.

What is 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 workers 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.

A Brief Definition of Fair Trade Coffee

Fair Trade Coffee

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.

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 focus on the more disenfranchised areas in the southern hemisphere.

Let me explain...

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

Fair Trade Coffee

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:

Fair Trade standards 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).
Fair Trade standards strive for a greater level of justice in trade on an individual, as well as a community, level.​​​
The effects of the Fair Trade system 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 on the environment. The Fair Trade certification takes these factors into account and tries to limit them.
Fair Trade standards show that people can be empowered through their work and can be a priority to a successful business.
While a cold and calculating look at business practices show that keeping labor costs down (regardless of your employees’ welfare) can increase profits, Fair Trade practices redefine the priorities while still keeping companies in business. They put happy and well-paid employees in the spotlight and depend on support from the consumers to maintain the system – and the unavoidably higher prices that come with it.

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 thanks to Fair Trade. Also, 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.

Note: You can get a further breakdown of some of these statistics on fairtradecertified.org’s “About” page and “Our Impact” page.

Here’s a quick 2-minute video with Paul Rice, the President and CEO of Fair Trade USA, that summarizes many of the benefits and results of fair trade:

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 labor and fair, honest prices.

It’s really a very beautiful thing at its core.

What are Some Fair Trade Coffee Brands?

Here are a few great brands of Fair Trade coffee to consider.

And if none of those sound appealing, here’s a whole list of certified brands!

Once you’ve chosen your coffee, all you have left to do is settle on a brewing method that makes you happy. What’s that? You don’t have one yet? Well, then you should check out our article on 19 kickass ways to brew sensational coffee!

So, What is Fair Trade Coffee, Then?

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.

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