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Understanding Fair-Trade Coffee

Understanding Fair-Trade Coffee

Like many of you reading this, I depend on coffee to start my day. Call it an addiction, call it an obsession, call it whatever you’d like, but the fact is, I need it to be a functioning human being. And with most of my obsessions, I try to consume products that will bring as much joy to those behind it as they give me. It’s hard to imagine all the people it took to get that coffee in your cup and the literal journey it takes to grow, process and roast one of the world’s most popular beverages. Historically, coffee production has been rife with exploitation, habitat destruction and unfair trading among nations and monopolies, and there are still notable, residual effects from long standing industry negligence. There is good news, however! For the better part of 20 years, many organisations have set out to create and advocate for the ethical and sustainable production of coffee and fair industry standards for those who produce it.

Picture of coffee

As consumers, it is our responsibility to be mindful of the ethical practices surrounding our purchases. Coffee is an important commodity in the lives of many people and the industry is massive, so it may be difficult to know where to begin when trying to navigate ethical coffee consumption. Luckily, fair-trade initiatives and certifications began in the late 1980’s with the goal to ensure that the global coffee industry is achieving the highest ethical standards in every level of coffee production.

I’m sure you’ve heard the term “ethically sourced” and “fair-trade” before. They may seem like catch-all terms, but making the active decision to choose ethically sourced coffee has a greater impact than you’d think. When you purchase coffee that’s been ethically sourced, also known as fair-trade coffee, you are actively choosing coffee that was grown with sustainable methods and follows practices that are environmentally conscious.

Historical coffee photo

So what does fair-trade mean?

Fair-trade coffee upholds standards and certifications regulated by fair-trade organizations, predominantly Fairtrade International, to ensure that coffee is produced and traded ethically and equitably. These standards apply to farmers, workers, traders and other industry bodies to enforce labour laws, fair pricing and trading of coffee beans, environmental practices and economic support for farmers and growers of coffee.

Close to 125 million people depend on coffee for their livelihood, more than a quarter of that number are small, family-run farms that produce nearly 80% of the world’s coffee. Unfortunately, a great deal of those farmers fail to earn a living wage, which results in property loss, poverty, and the chance of being unable to yield an annual crop. The reasons behind this are numbered. Coffee plants are volatile, unpredictable, and highly susceptible to agricultural conditions such as weather, frost and soil. Often, farmers themselves are unfamiliar with efficient farming strategies and business solutions that allow for them to sell their coffee at high market prices. Many fair-trade organizations have dedicated divisions aimed at educating farmers and small businesses in modern and effective farming techniques and business tactics to navigate the global coffee industry.

According to Fair-Trade Canada, certified coffee producers are guaranteed to receive at least the Fairtrade Minimum Price for their coffee, which aims to cover their costs of production and act as a safety net when market prices fall below a sustainable level. Farmers receive the additional Fairtrade Premium to invest in business or community improvements and must use at least 25% of it to enhance productivity and quality.

Fair trade infographic

Support the drink you love

It may take a village to make a cup of coffee, but it doesn’t take a village to make significant change with that cup. Making ethical consumer decisions is one of the many ways we can do our part in creating a better world. Choosing ethically sourced and fair-trade coffee is one of the easiest decisions to make, and will guarantee that you’ll feel just as good on the last sip as you felt sipping the first.


Kaylin Baker-Fields

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