What is Fair Trade Coffee?

If you’re an avid coffee drinker you may have come across the term Fair Trade Coffee while perusing the back labels of your favourite brands. Indeed, certain producers have made words like ‘Organic’, ‘Ethical’ and ‘Sustainable’ the cornerstones of their marketing campaigns. But what do these terms really mean? What is Fair Trade Coffee and how important is it really?

Fair Trade Coffee refers to a coffee that has been verified by independent Fair Trade Organisations as abiding by Fair Trade Standards. These standards include:

  • ethical treatment of workers
  • sustainable farming practices
  • placing an emphasis on reasonable and honest trade partnerships between farmers, producers, and retailers.

Additionally, Fair Trade Organisations focus on offering better trading practices and opportunities to farmers that they have identified as ethical actors. By offering various benefits, these groups hope to incentivize cleaner and safer practices to those willing to implement them.

Put simply, if you can spot a certification label on a specific brand’s product it generally means the coffee’s production or distribution or both have been held to a certain ethical or environmentally-conscious standard.

What is Fair Trade Coffee?

How important is Fair Trade?


In an age filled with growing concern about the environment and the treatment of workers, many coffeeholic’s are willing to put down their cups if they believe their brand of choice isn’t doing its part for the world and those who live in it.

For instance, the Food Empowerment Project notes that in some countries, workers earn less than 2% of the retail price of coffee. While the United States Department of Labour estimates that roughly 158,000 children in Honduras are subject to child labour law violations. Runoff from coffee plants can also pollute water sources, damaging the ecosystems within the water and those that depend on it.

How important is Fair Trade?

Spending too much time thinking about the potentially nightmarish conditions infesting the coffee trade may be enough to turn off even the most fervent caffeine addicts. This moral dilemma has created a new market for principled actors who can act as a safeguard against the more insidious opportunists the world over.

With this in mind, more and more coffee producers have been going the extra mile to ensure that their product is grown in an environmentally-friendly manner with a focus on the fair treatment of their workers, specifically those living throughout the Third World.  

In an attempt to satisfy this new demand for improved ethics, agencies have begun to spring up around the world promising to verify the standards of coffee brands and provide their seal of approval. In recent years Fairtrade International (FLO) has become the de facto fair trade label in the world of coffee, however, criticisms of the organization coupled with a groundswell of rival fair trade brands have resulted in an abundance of potential Fair Trade certifications on offer to distributors.

With so many potential checks and balances to choose from, consumers may be at a loss when deciding which verification stickers to look for on their favourite retailer.

Which brands practice Fair Trade ethics?

  • Starbucks – If like so many others, your designated caffeine halfway house between work and home is your local Starbucks, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Since 2000, Starbucks has been working with Fairtrade on a global scale to better assist hardworking farmers.
  • Costa Coffee – Since 2009, Europe’s coffee superpower has been proudly Fair Trade, making it the planet’s biggest buyer of Fair Trade coffee
  • Dunkin’ Doughnuts – 2004 saw this household name partner with Fair Trade USA in the name of environmental and economic welfare throughout the coffee production process.
  •  Nescafé – As of 2010, this coffee giant unveiled The Nescafé Plan that focuses on training farmers and supporting the varied communities that surround them.
  • Jacobs – JDE along with all its associates have clearly stated their codes of conduct and strict guidelines pertaining to ethical and fair practices. They have also established a Speak Up Policy to identify any actions that do not adhere to the aforementioned principles.

For the more impersonal coffee fans there are also many brands available online that promise high-held standards to ensure peace of mind, namely:

  • Grumpy mule
  • Blk + Bold
  • Doma
  • Cafedirect
  • Conscious coffees
  • Higher Ground Roasters

If your go-to brand isn’t listed above, don’t panic! Once registered by Fair Trade agencies, brands have a license to advertise this fact on their product, simply look around and you’ll be sure to find a coffee that meets your standards.

The most common verifications to look out for are FairTrade International and Bird Friendly Coffee but more agencies are appearing every day. 

If the above emblems appear on a product, you can rest assured that they have been inspected and approved as ethical and environmentally-aware in their production.

Fair Trade Critiques

The story would be too simple if it all ended there. Unfortunately, vocal critics have appeared to object to the practices of Fair Trade Organisations and the effect that they are having on the coffee scene.

Recently the MIT Press conducted a study on Free Trade coffee and its effects on a global scale, the study seemed to show that an overabundance of Fair Trade certifications has all but destroyed their intended effect. The apparent rubber-stamping of coffee brands with descriptors of ‘ethical’ and ‘environmentally-aware’ has seemingly watered-down their meanings and caused fewer and fewer customers to pay attention to these titles.

Others have accused the movement of being less about ecological care and human rights and more about coffee lovers feeling better about themselves. These critics argue that the ethical labels added to the products only exist to calm the minds of the consumers.

Others have accused Fair Trade organizations of improper resource allocation. They argue that few low-income farmers ever really see the financial aid that the movement seeks to provide to them. A study from Harvard showed that most benefits felt by these farmers are negligible at best.

There is some encouraging news though and it lies with the consumers themselves, a graduate student experiment seemed to show that coffee drinkers were willing to pay an additional 50 cents (US) for a cup of free-trade coffee. This suggests that although the agencies in play may have some work to do to truly live up to their own standards, the average consumers at least seem to have their hearts in the right place.

In retrospect, however, it may be wise not to judge these groups too harshly for any perceived failures. After all, a quick look at the history of Fair Trade Coffee shows a pattern of good-willed but ultimately incompetent organizations taking up the mantle of ‘ethical watchdog’ only to be replaced by better, more streamlined, and efficient entities.

In Conclusion – What is Fair Trade Coffee and how important is it really?

Fair Trade Coffee can most accurately be summed up as a movement to identify and uplift coffee producers who hold their production process and associated parties to a certain ethical standard focused on environmental preservation and ethical treatment of workers at all levels of the company.

While the inherent moral good of the movement seems self-evident, it is not without its detractors and has been seen by many as an outlet for the moral promotion and self-aggrandizing by more affluent members of the First World.

While many coffee drinkers around the globe seem ready and willing to shell out a little extra cash in the pursuit of a safer and cleaner coffee cycle, the evidence is out as to whether or not the Fair Trade Coffee movement has actually accomplished any positive real-world changes.

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