The Question No One Really Wants to Know the Answer to

Measuring pickers' picking at Potenciana Cafe, fair as fair can be
Measuring pickers’ pickings at Potenciana Cafe, fair as fair can be

At the Ground to Grounds coffee tasting/coffee talk event in DC a few weeks ago, a woman was flipping through one of the copies of “When Coffee Speaks” on display. I told her I was the author and asked her if she had any questions.

She looked up excitedly and said, “Oh! Maybe you can tell me: is fair trade really fair?”

After “what’s your favorite coffee?,” inquiries into the veracity of fair trade are the questions most commonly posed to me when people learn I have something to do with coffee. It’s the question that’s most commonly asked, and it probably has the most complicated answer of any coffee question.

I explained to the woman, and her daughters and husband huddled next to her, the way that fair trade organizations are not-for-profit entities that get together to set standards/enumerate criteria for certification under their organization’s name, and that independent third party (fourth party?) for-profit auditing organizations check to see if participating parties seeking certification (farms, mills, exporters, importers, roasters, vendors) meet the standards outlined by the certification.

I explained that, in the US, all questions about fair trade recently got more complicated because of the ideological-then-for-real spilt between Fairtrade International (formerly FLO, Fairtrade Labeling Organization) and Fair Trade USA (formerly TransFair).

I explained that the people developing the standards represent primarily consuming nations with input from primarily producing nations. I explained that, in producing nations, there is only one for-profit third (fourth?) party auditing agency accredited to bestow a “yes” or “no” verdict to determine whether the party (farm/mill/exporter) will receive certification. I explained that the standards could be comprehensive and the farms could be compliant but that the auditors could still be corrupt. I explained that the auditors could be honest and that the farms could be the corrupt link, because often the “farms” are actually usually co-ops of over 1,000 small producers, or a collection of co-ops representing upwards 5,000 producers, and, at this point, allocation of premiums, the main fair trade benefit, gets fuzzy.

I explained that the whole why reason parties at origin (farms/mills/exporters) are willing to go through the trouble of paying the sole accredited auditing agency (incarnate in a given auditor, who may or may not be corrupt) in the hopes of earning a fair trade certification is because of pricing guarantees. I didn’t get too into floor prices and premiums, but I did explain that just because a coffee has gone through the entire certification process doesn’t mean that it will actually fetch those guaranteed prices. It can still be bought and sold as “regular” coffee, even after everyone has crossed their t’s and dotted their i’s to get it certified, making investments in certification a considerable risk.

She paused, turned the book over in her hands, and said, “so can I feel good about drinking my fair coffee?”

That’s the million dollar question. Should I feel bad about doing something that I love? Or can I feel ok drinking coffee, which I like doing? Is there a hidden guilt associated with this thing I do every day? Or can I feel ok about coffee that is supposedly guilt free? Really, I don’t want to know all the details. I just want to know; can I feel good drinking fair trade coffee?

If the answer is yes, then carry on.

But if the answer is no? Then that mother—and her daughters and husband—assume the wounded doe eyes. No? But how could we not feel good? This fair trade coffee is promoted by my church, by the mission group at my church, by the mission group that conducts poverty alleviating aid trips to Africa twice a year. How could they be promoting something that I can’t feel good about? How are you going to indict them? Are you really going to throw my church’s aid-trip conducting mission group or my daughter’s independent school activist PTA or the coffee shop with the peace signs and the good vibes and the artisan vegan cupcakes who also serves feel-good fair trade coffee under the bus?

No one wants to be told, “no, actually, you can’t feel good about this.” Because if you can’t feel good you would have to feel bad. No one wants to be told no, because that means they would be obligated to do something about the bad feeling (something that might disrupt their carrying-onward), which is inconvenient. But, if people were so sure of their yeses, if they really had conviction that all was fair as fair from their church group, PTA, good-vibes coffee shop, then they wouldn’t be asking me in the first place. If they didn’t have doubt, they wouldn’t bother with an inquiry. They’re crossing their fingers that their straightforward inquiry of “is fair trade really fair” will yield a “yes” so that they can exhale and let out a little “whew” that they can take all those fair trade claims for serious because someone else said it was ok to do so.

I can’t be that person. I compiled “When Coffee Speaks” to show—to let the words of people who’s lives are actually directly affected by things like fair trade–to create a mosaic that shows that the answers to these questions are not “yes” or “no” at all. The answers are “sometimes” or “in certain cases.” We don’t like those answers—even if they’re the truth—because they don’t help us figure out whether we should feel ok or not. Those grey area truths means that there is still room for guilt and we are still responsible for our actions.

She was turning the book over in her hands hoping to find the page that says, “Yes. You can feel good about fair trade. It’s ok to drink this coffee.”

There is no such page in my book. If there is ever such a page it will have to pertain to a particular case, to a particular coffee, and to a particular person or group of people.

When you ask the question, “is fair trade really fair” it implies the inverse question of “is non-fair-trade not fair? Is regular trade unfair?” That’s an even bigger query to unpack. Trade is a big thing and fairness is an abstract noun as relative as any intangible socio-cultural concept we as socio-culture groups ever attempt to come to consensus on. Fair trade programs are attempting to encompass the entirety of trade and of fairness, and when the sun never sets on your empire, well, we’ve seen how that goes.

Instead of asking “can I feel good about fair trade coffee?” maybe it’s better to set ourselves up with a more manageable query, like, “is there a coffee I can feel good about?” Fifteen years ago you might not have been satisfied with any of the available responses. Today, thanks to things like the internet and relative political stability making tropical travel relatively safe, the answer to that question can often be yes, with coffeepeople overextending themselves to deliver coffee to you cup that satisfies any definition of “feel good.”

One of the biggest trickeries of fair trade is its scale. When it represents the interests of every coffee consuming and producing country on earth, it starts to represent nobody. The problem with massive organizations that are the amalgamation of representative representations is that there is no individual personality whose values can trickle down into the fingertips of everything that organization does. The structure attempts to prohibit negative trickle down, but it can also clog the floes of best intention. The good thing about small companies is that if the owners of the company are also asking the same questions you’re asking yourself, then they too want to feel good about their coffee, and they will not rest until the coffee they offer for sale is stuff they can feel good about.

If you ask, “is fair trade coffee, through active branding to activate consumer awareness, creating a global commodity market climate in which all players of the chain are encouraged to restructure operations to better take into account the triple bottom line in order to both secure supply and widen profit margins, creating opportunities for groups typically unfairly slighted by market realities to receive fairer compensation and improved work/life conditions?” Then the answer is, “yes.”

The work of fair trade is using vocal consumer demand to prompt improvements in economic, social, and environmental conditions that have historically been unfairly detrimental to the groups producing coffee. It is offering schemes for commercialization that encourage fairer compensation; it is structured to hold companies accountable for the conditions their workers experience, the wages they are paid, and the basic environmental impacts of doing business.

But does that mean that you can feel good, be contently guilt-free, as you drink a cup of coffee made from a bag of fair trade beans you bought at the grocery store?

Unfortunately not. The scale of the theoretical structure, the variables in its application, and the logistics of packing a commercial product for retail make certainty pretty near impossible. The logos aren’t intentionally lying or covering anything up, but they simply cannot convey the whole picture of something so massive with so many opportunities for people to be quietly underhanded.

If you want coffee you can feel good about, you have to go small, and go small with someone you trust. If you find a company who is asking the same questions you are, who is headed by someone who simply would not stand to have his or her values compromised, then you will be drinking coffee you can feel good about.

There aren’t too many companies that fall under that category, because sometimes people are selling you a set of values rather than sharing them, but coffee deserving of your best feelings does exist. If you want coffee you can feel good feeling good about, start with Potenciana Café, for one. And Santa Anita, for two of Costa Rica’s finest.

If you’re curious about the things that make your fair trade coffee complicated, visit the websites of coffee importers, which sometimes have lists of warehouse coffee offerings (Royal or Olam Specialty, for example), or the sites of small batch green coffee vendors for home roasting, like Burman’s. Some warehouses list the names of the co-ops their coffees come from (versus just the country or name of exporter). Some of those co-ops have websites. Cooperative Coffees does a particularly detailed job of this type of traceability, going as far as to show copies of signed contracts outlining prices and delivery agreements with their Fair Trade Proof lot tracer.  From the comfort of your good-vibes coffee shop you can do a lot of investigative origin tracing just by clicking.

The proof lies in the far off hills of coffee origin (which hopefully aren’t eroding due to soil degradation from agrochemical overuse combined with extreme rain patterns), but you can never really know unless you’re buying coffee from someone with a vested interest in those hills. That search can be much more exhausting than comfortable, but when you find a person and a company with that vested interest, you will be drinking a cup wrought in the best of conscious.



  1. Once again, a relavent topic! I was eavesdropping on your answer to that question Rachel, and was very impressed with your answer. There are so many questions that just can’t be answered with a yes or no, and most folks don’t have the time or interest to spend the hours necessary to learn why. Usually, in my experience, the best answer for those typres of inquiries is, “it depends!” For small growers with margins so narrow they can shave with them, mandating a minimum wage, along with benefits is near impossible. For the corporate growers, they have the resources to comply and the marketing connections to reap the benefits. Rachel, your answer was spot on, and, given your propensity for accuracy and completeness, very succinct. I hope you don’t mind me plagerizing some of your words!

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