All coffees not created equal; local businesses use coffee created under fair trade regulations

Peter McAvoy, right, graduate student, and a fellow student work on a project at Cafe Paradiso while having coffee on Sunday. Cafe Paradiso buys its coffee from a direct-trade company. Erica Magda

Johnny Chiang

Peter McAvoy, right, graduate student, and a fellow student work on a project at Cafe Paradiso while having coffee on Sunday. Cafe Paradiso buys its coffee from a direct-trade company. Erica Magda

By Emily Thiersch

Most students can tell you whether they like coffee – and they may be able to tell you their favorite coffee shop, which they frequent most likely out of habit or for the ambiance. But very few can tell you where the coffee they buy comes from, how many hands might have touched it or how much the farmer who grew the beans earned at the end of the day.

But there are those students who keep in mind when they enter a coffee shop that each cup of coffee comes from somewhere – that a farmer most likely picked the beans on a plot of land in South America or Africa. These are often the students who ask for fair trade coffee.

“I prefer to know that my coffee isn’t produced by slave labor,” said Peter McAvoy, graduate student.

In the last few years, the buzz over “fair trade coffee” has grown, and fair trade-certified coffees have become increasingly mainstream.

For example, Starbucks carries two fair trade-certified types of coffee, though customers have to specifically request them. Espresso Royale offers a fair trade-certified coffee every day, rotating between its Ethiopian, Peruvian, Guatemalan and Mexican varieties.

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But few students give much thought to whether the coffee they order is fairly traded, even if they have heard about issues regarding fair trade.

“A small group of people comes and asks for fair trade coffee,” said Michael Wells, the owner of Aroma Cafe in Champaign. About 30 to 40 percent of Aroma’s coffee is fair trade-certified.

Even fewer people understand the debate behind the issue, said Paul West, owner of Cafe Kopi in Champaign.

“Some people just latch onto the label without really knowing what it means,” West said.

“Americans like certifications because it is an easy way for us to feel good about ‘solving’ an issue, but that is not the entire case,” said Mark Herriott, owner of Herriott’s Columbia St. Roastery in Champaign. “We believe if we buy this certification everything is OK and the problem is solved. But certifications are a multi-edged sword.”

According to the 2006 documentary “Black Gold,” coffee beans are often sold to middlemen at low prices on the commodities market, and the average coffee farmer makes about one cent to every dollar that a consumer spends on a cup of coffee. Fair trade certification ensures that farmers receive a fair price for their coffee that is above the market price. The agencies ensure that producers meet certain criteria and, if they do, label their products as “fair trade.”

Most fair trade coffee is also organic, said Herriott.

Fair trade-certified coffee usually uses less pesticides and herbicides than non-certified coffee, even if it does not meet the criteria to be certified organic, because most certification standards – for instance, those of TransFair – require that farmers reduce their environmental footprint.

Fair trade agencies encourage producers to cut out some of the intermediaries involved in moving coffee from the field to the coffee shop to reduce costs, and the profits are passed to the farmers. By labeling coffee beans fair trade, they also raise the coffee’s value, in terms of both its guaranteed premium quality and the value consumers attach to knowing their coffee is produced in an ethical manner.

“(These agencies) are credible because they don’t have a direct stake in the certification,” said Alex Winter-Nelson, associate professor and director of graduate studies in ACES.

There are many third-party certification agencies out there, each of which has its own set of requirements. The most visible fair trade certification agency in the U.S. – whose label can be spotted on some bags of Espresso Royale and Starbucks coffee on campus – is TransFair, the United States affiliate of the Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International.

Criticism of the fair trade certification process include claims that it is nearly impossible for most small farmers to afford certification. Fair trade certification from TransFair costs two thousand Euro for an initial inspection and 500 Euro per year, plus additional fees related to revenue earned from coffee.

“For many farmers, the return on the investment is negative,” said Herriott. “I had a chance to meet the main person from a co-op which a non-certified (organic) Colombian came from. … I did not see much difference between the certified organic and their coffee. The comment from the head of the co-op was ‘we just can’t afford the fees, but basically we are the same as the organic.'”

Some local coffee shops strive to be socially and environmentally responsible in ways other than selling coffee certified by the Fairtrade Labeling Organizations.

Caffe Paradiso in Urbana buys its coffee from Intelligentsia, a company based in Chicago that engages in “direct trade” with farmers.

“What they do is better than fair trade because they cut out the middle man,” said Laura Smith, manager at Paradiso and senior in FAA. She went on to say its standards are actually higher than those of TransFair USA.

Intelligentsia’s farmers don’t have to pay the high fee for certification, so even farmers with very small plots, who don’t have access to big enough markets to get a positive return on their investment in fair trade certification, can get a fair price for their coffee.

Intelligentsia representatives visit farms every year, generally visiting farms three times a year: before, during and after the harvest. It requires that farmers receive 25 percent more pay than required by the Fairtrade Labeling Organizations and that farmers use environmentally healthy farming techniques, among other stipulations, Smith said.

Columbia Street Roastery, which roasts its own coffee, sends employees to the farms where its coffee is produced to see how much work goes into each stage of bean preparation.

“Once you see how people get paid at the end of the day, you appreciate what you are drinking much more,” Herriott said. “When you become complacent about the way your coffee is produced … you need to look back at how much work went into getting that product to the cup.”

Herriott said many coffee farmers work on steep slopes at high altitudes and have to tie themselves to trees as they swing around to pick the berries that contain coffee beans.

Despite the amount of buzz that has been generated by the fair trade issue, only about 1 percent of coffee in the world comes from fair trade-certified producers, Winter-Nelson said.

“(Fair trade agencies) are actually pretty small players overall,” Winter-Nelson said. “You can criticize them for being incidental – but they are helping a lot of poor people. Maybe not the poorest of the poor, but very poor people.”

Some are skeptical of the proliferation of labels conferring “fair trade” status on coffee.

“The problem is that there are a lot of independent groups and no one standard,” Wells said. “Someone can claim their coffee is fair trade, but how much is actually going back to the farmer?”

Strawberry Fields, a natural foods store in Urbana, sells fair trade-certified coffee alongside coffee that is labeled “relationship coffee.”

The best way to encourage environmentally and socially sustainable coffee-growing practices is to pay more for higher-quality coffee, Wells said.

“I buy the fair trade Ethiopian coffee from Espresso (Royale) because it’s one of the best coffees I’ve tasted,” said Lauren Hilton, sophomore in LAS.

Ruth Mininger, community outreach coordinator of Ten Thousand Villages in Champaign, said the fair trade system for coffee, while far from perfect, is at least a step in the right direction. She said she would not go back to buying coffee whose production could have involved child labor or, essentially, indentured slave labor.

“Some members of the intelligentsia want to sit around and wait until the perfect solution comes along – which is a na’ve and ignorant way of looking at things,” Mininger said.

At the macroeconomic level, trade agreements and U.S. government policies are not going to substantially help small farmers, Mininger said.

“I know people who have visited the farms (in developing countries), and they realize we need to keep doing something that will help people at the grassroots level.”