Why Buy Fair Trade Coffee?



This article is the first in a Fair Trade series that will explore what Fair Trade means, its vital importance in the world, and what you can do to start practicing Fair Trade efforts in your home.

According to FairTradeUSA.org (a 3rd party certifier) Fair Trade in regards to coffee means:

  1. Fair Wages
  2. Long Term Contracts
  3. Direct Trade (no middlemen)

This sounds ideal, right? It contributes to worldwide environmental and sustainability efforts also. However, roughly 95% of the coffee being sold in the U.S. is not Fairly Traded.

Fair Trade is a system that aims to provide farmers the tools and knowledge necessary to ensure the 3 items listed above occur.

Fair Trade may not necessarily mean organic, however the use of GMO’s (genetically engineered crops) are prohibited for it to be labeled Fair Trade.

“About 85% of Fair Trade Certified coffee is shade grown and either passive or certified organic. Over half of the certified organic coffee is produced by Fair Trade cooperatives, but unless the coffee is Fair Trade Certified, there is no guarantee that the farmer received the benefit.” [1]

Fair Trade USA practices include:

Banning use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

Protecting water resources and natural vegetation areas

Promoting agricultural diversification, erosion control, and no slash and burn

Restricting the use of pesticides and fertilizers

Requiring proper management of waste, water and energy [5]

So Fair Trade aims to empower workers and protect local environments. These are the two main aspects of Fair Trade movements.  We will explore this more…


Human Rights & Labor Issues

The preamble to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states the following powerful message. We often enjoy these parameters in our everyday lives in the developed world and may take them for granted.

“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”

An example of when Fair Traded conditions are not being met in regards to minimum wages:

“A recent study of plantations in Guatemala showed that over half of all coffee pickers don’t receive the minimum wage, in violation of Guatemalan labor laws.”

 image  To meet quotas workers may resort to bringing their children to work and it is overlooked by their employers. “…children as young as 6 or 8 years old at work in the fields. We believe that the best way to prevent child labor in the fields is to pay workers a living wage.” [1]  It’s not uncommon for younger children to work and contribute to their family income.

Agricultural workers often do not have the right to unionize or organize and fight for fair rights; such as fair wages, fair working hours, pay for overtime, or health care benefits.

To view a graphic of the basic supply chain for Traditional Coffee versus Fairly Traded coffee click here: coffee graphic. Feel free to print and share. (Note: I am not an economist-this graphic  is meant to be a basic representation based on my own research.)

Buying Fair Trade products contributes to a greater world in which local communities thrive, children are able to obtain an education, women are empowered, and people are treated humanely.  Earning a living wage is humane treatment.

Reinvesting profits in local economies means families thrive.  15 cents an hour is a much better income than being paid 3 cents per hour. A farmer who is able to make better business decisions and know what their product is worth will know how to keep corporate interests at bay.MD-Infograph-843x843

Devastating Environmental & Health Impacts

In the 70’s and 80’s technological advancements and the desire for higher product yields led to “sun-grown” and cultivated crops. Traditionally, coffee is grown in shade groves.  Growing and harvesting is not rushed. Local wildlife, such as birds, can co-habitat safely in the tree growing areas.

There are major environmental impacts because of this shift in agricultural practices to sun crops. Deforestation and the adverse affects of growing coffee trees unnaturally, leads to more usage of toxic herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides.  Basically, local farmer’s hands became tied and corporate interests became highly involved.

“…the US Agency for International Development and other groups gave $80 million dollars for plantations in Central America to replace traditional shade grown farming techniques with ‘sun cultivation’ techniques in order to increase yields. This resulted in the destruction of vast forests and biodiversity of over 1.1 million hectares. ‘Sun cultivated’ coffee involves the cutting down of trees, monocropping, and the input of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This type of industrial coffee farming leads to severe environmental problems, such as pesticide pollution, deforestation and the extinction of songbirds through habitat destruction.” [1]

The use of toxic chemicals can ruin local water sources; the runoff affects locals and their clean water resources. Their children often bath, wash their clothing in these water sources, and consume it.

Health Impacts: Children and Women

Environmental toxins such as these can lead to neurological damage and developmental disorders in children.  “In 2010 the journal Pediatrics published a study by the Harvard School of Public Health which found that children with high levels of pesticides known as organophosphates were twice as likely to develop ADHA (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity-Disorder).2″  [4]  This information is on American children, but it would apply to any child exposed to pesticides.

Indigenous Latin American woman is harvesting ripe coffee berries on organic coffee farm. Food and drink coffee background. - stock photo

This also affects any pregnant women who work in tree farms that use pesticides. “A new University of California, Berkeley study linked prenatal pesticide exposure to lower levels of IQ in children. The study measured pesticide exposure in the urine of pregnant women in Salinas and found a 7 point IQ deficit in children whose mothers had the highest pesticide levels.3” [4]

What I glean from this is you want to find ORGANIC coffee. Organic foods cannot be grown with the use of these chemicals. I know you are probably worrying about price tags at this point, Fair Traded and Organic?  I can buy a 10 oz. Meijer True Goodness brand ground coffee for under $10.  It is Fair Trade Certified, USDA Organic, and non-GMO. With minimal effort, you can find a brand you enjoy at a reasonable price.

Linked here is a comprehensive list of the product partners in Fair Trade Coffee practices. To name a few: Trader Joe’s, Crazy Cups, Einstein & Noah, Mountain Peak, Stone Creek, Equal Exchange (a personal taste favorite), Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts Incorporated, Meijer Grocery, 20 Below, Macy’s, and Nordstrom’s have pledged to use Fair Trade resources.

If I’m buying products sourced from other countries (even if fairly traded), am I harming the U.S. economy?

Ideally, we would buy locally and I highly encourage buying from local businesses that use American-made products to fuel our national economy.

However most of our food products, especially coffee beans are imported from other countries (see graphic below). The top coffee exporters are Brazil, Veitnam, Columbia, Indonesia, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, and Guatemala.

You could find a Fair Trade brand whose beans are sourced locally and make the switch (extremely unlikely on the local source for beans). Or, a local coffee roaster or retailer whose sources are bought direct from fairly traded sources oversees.


There are a few U.S. coffee growers, Hawaii grows coffee in the Kona “coffee belt.” There are also  coffee growing efforts underway in Santa Barbara, CA and GA. [2]

So, What Can I Do?

Buy Fair Trade Certified and if you can buy organic coffee. Explain to others what you learned today. I think true empathy is lacking in our country today.  We must be aware where our products come from.

Coffee beans - Guatemala - stock photo

Cherries are picked by hand and shelled to reveal the bean.

We are intrinsically linked with the rest of the world but we forget in the daily grind. Try to visualize what the people who pick the cherries lifestyles may be like. Don’t we all want better lives for others? Get involved. Go to FairTradeCampaigns.org.

According to this CNN article, Hugh Jackman wants you to
Drink Better Coffee
 “About 5% of coffee sold in the U.S. is Fair Trade Certified, up from about 1.5% 10 years ago.”

This is great progress but not enough. We must start investing our consumer dollars in Fair Trade products and tell companies what we value. If you value humane rights, children’s health, education, and our earth’s health it is 100%  worth investing a few extra dollars per week.




1.) http://www.globalexchange.org/fairtrade/coffee/faq#2

2.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffee_production_in_Hawaii

3.) Beller, Debra. How Coffee Works. accessed January 2016.  http://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/edible-innovations/coffee4.htm

4.) Bishop, Tandis. Studies Show the Effect of Pesticides in Children. January 29, 2009. www.downtoearth.org

5.) FAQ: Fair Trade USA. Accessed January 2016.



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