Wake up and smell the coffee :: why direct fair trade is best

Every morning I look forward to my cup of coffee. I’m very particular about how it’s prepared. The water must be boiling when I pour it into my stovetop mocha pot, the beans must be freshly ground, and the milk has to be heated and frothed. First I pour in the hot coffee, then add the hot milk topped with spoonfuls of luscious foam. Sometimes I add a dash of cinnamon on top. That homemade latte is what gets me out of bed in the morning and sustains me through the daily battle of violin practice with my four-year-old.

But there’s another reason why I love my cup of coffee: It’s made with “direct fair trade” coffee. Since my aunt manages a Ten Thousand Villages store (which sells fair-trade handicrafts and food from around the world), she has insisted for years that everyone in the family drink only fair trade coffee. This past week, I finally sat down to watch a documentary called “Black Gold” that she recommended. It came out in 2006, but is still very relevant as it explains the inner workings of the complex coffee market. The film was deeply moving and disturbing, and made me realize how the North American obsession with buying cheap coffee is actually destroying others.

By watching “Black Gold,” I learned that many African nations, such as Ethiopia, Burundi, and Uganda, depend on coffee for more than 50% of their exports. In fact, it is second only to oil as the world’s most valuable and traded commodity. And yet, coffee farmers cannot even make a living wage. Their children are starving to death, getting admitted to ‘emergency feeding stations,’ and not receiving an education because there’s no money for schools. The price of coffee is set by the New York Coffee Exchange, and whatever that price is on a given day is what the farmers will receive from the middlemen. The scenes of poverty and desperation of coffee farmers in Ethiopia, where the majority of the documentary was filmed, are seared into my mind.

The key is to move away from buying coffee that’s connected to the New York Coffee Exchange and from the four multinational corporations that dominate coffee consumption: Kraft (owner of Maxwell House and others), Nestle, Proctor & Gamble (owner of Folgers and others), and Sara Lee.  By opting for “direct fair trade,” in which a single company deals directly with a small-scale coffee farmer, importing and roasting and selling their product, it’s easier to ensure that the farmers are receiving adequate pay for their product.

My favourite supplier is Level Ground, based in Victoria, British Columbia. (You can buy their coffee online through Ten Thousand Villages, which often has free shipping.) Since 1997, the Canadian company has been working directly with coffee farmers throughout Latin America and Africa to ensure fair prices, sustainable farming practices, and community development. I especially like that they publish all coffee purchase histories and farmers’ payments in order to ensure transparency. (It’s wholly unlike Starbucks’ website, which I visited out of curiosity and could hardly sift through their ‘ethical’ jargon to make any sense of what their policies are. For the record, ‘Black Gold’ makes Starbucks look really bad) For $13.50 I buy a pound of lusciously oily, dark beans from Level Ground that never fail to make a fabulous latte. I can’t think of a better way to start off my day.


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6 thoughts on “Wake up and smell the coffee :: why direct fair trade is best

  1. I love Ten Thousand Villages!! I used to live in Waterloo and was a regular at the lovely shop in the heart of UpTown. When I moved I was thrilled to find out that Port Colborne has a Ten Thousand Villages as well! It may be smaller than the one in Waterloo but regardless it is my go to for gift buying!! As for the topic of coffee…most people I know (and used to buy coffee for as a gift) have the new style coffee brewing machines (Tassimo, Kurig, etc.) and I’ve yet to find any fair trade options to purchase for these. It’s unfortunate.

    1. That’s coincidental that you live in Port Colborne now, since that’s the very store that my aunt (Jane Nigh) manages! You should definitely introduce yourself. She’d be delighted to hear of this connection.
      I can’t stand those single-pod coffee machines, which are a horrible waste of plastic, aluminum and money. Those pods end up costing far more than high-end fair trade coffees bought by the pound.
      Anyways, glad to hear you’re on the fair trade bandwagon 🙂

  2. Your homemade latte sounds delicious! 🙂 I always buy fair trade: fair trade coffee, sugar, chocolate, bananas, flowers… Like many products from developing countries, the cut flower industry has a very ugly side of child labour and people working for a tiny, tiny salary, not to mention the fact that they are exposed to horrible pesticides and chemicals without proper protective clothing. Yep, fair trade is definitely the way to go!

  3. It important to note, if you have any American readers, that there has been a schism in the fair trade movement where the Americans have allowed corporate owned plantations into their system. So Americans have to pick through their labels carefully. I wrote about it here http://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/fair-trade-usa-splits-international-fair-trade-organization.html

    Also you can go even further and go really local; I get my coffee from https://www.coffeecology.com/ in Hamilton; they roast fair trade organic coffee weekly, pack it in returnable glass mason jars, and deliver it to my house by cargo bike.

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