Why coffee drinkers must be in a state of perpetual moral purgatory

By Brian Pierce

Because I am skeptical by nature (and also pretty cheap), I am wary of coffee shops that scream at me in colored chalk about how they offer fair trade coffee. But because I am also a bleeding heart by nature, I am drawn to the claim that paying a few extra pennies for my Spanish latte will help solve global poverty. I am suspicious when I am told not to buy coffee from the mostly non-fair trade Starbucks (their whole beans are fair trade, but their brewed coffee is not), and I don’t know whether to feel righteous or duped when I buy fair trade from the Espresso Royale down the street from me.

As a result, I decided to do as much research on the subject that I can tolerate (read: a cursory look at the Google search results for “fair trade coffee”), and, of course, have ended up feeling even more conflicted.

It seems there exists a decent chance that buying fair trade coffee on average will actually end up hurting coffee producers through what is called “price discrimination,” in which a product is sold at different prices by the same provider. Some have called fair trade coffee “exploitation coffee,” because by dividing the market in two, coffee producers who are not producing fair trade coffee end up being treated especially poorly. This increase in price dispersion results in a widening gap between richer and poorer coffee producers, with the poorer ones being treated worse than they would be if nobody sold through fair trade.

In cases where price discrimination exists, this increased gap between richer and poorer is inevitable, but whether the treatment of the average producer improves or not depends on the specifics of the coffee market, and it is difficult to determine what the truth is. Basically, if enough people buy fair trade, the average worker treatment will get better. But in a kind of catch-22 glitch, if some, but not enough, people buy fair trade, it will actually end up hurting the average producer. At the same time, as more people buy fair trade, the “average” worker will become less common as the number of producers who are treated very well or poorly increase in a kind of inverse Bell curve.

In essence, it may help or it may hurt to buy fair trade coffee, or even both (you’re welcome for the conclusive opinion). But it does seem that if Starbucks and other big corporate chains of coffee sellers were persuaded to convert entirely to fair trade coffee sales, it would increase the chances that the average treatment of coffee producers would improve, though again, that may mean that the ones who aren’t producing fair trade coffee get treated especially poorly.

It is also important to note that all of this is operating under the assumption that the coffee provider can be judged credibly in its claims of offering fair trade coffee. A fair trade certification label requires that the coffee sold was purchased at an increased price with heightened labor and environmental standard. By offering some but not all coffee fair trade, like Starbucks does, many consumers can be and are manipulated.

In the end, the World Bank takes a positive stance on fair trade and a couple of preliminary studies indicate that it has had a positive impact, since the farmers who sell fair trade coffee indisputably do end up with a higher quality of life. These studies neglect the impact on all those farmers who do not sell fair trade.

So as it turns out, if I buy fair trade there’s a chance I’m hurting the people I’m trying to help, and there’s little way to know for sure. That doesn’t leave much for an average consumer to do except to ask questions and try to decide in whom to put his or her trust: corporate coffee chains or loopy-sounding idealists.

I envy the tea drinkers of the world.