The van rumbled down the side of an El Salvador volcano on a steep, gravel road when someone asked, “What’s that?”
The driver stopped the van and we all jumped out. It was a coffee plantation, the first one I’d ever seen.
The tiny dark reddish-brown beans growing on little green and brown plants on a rocky mountainside in this Latin American country were a reality check for me.
Where does my coffee come from? Who harvests the beans, packs them, sends them to roasters, and then gives me the beautiful little bag of beans at the grocery store that becomes my daily life-sustaining beverage?
I’ve known I was destined to be a coffee addict since I was very young. Every person in my immediate family drinks coffee. Sure enough, at about 15, I developed a taste for the dark, caffeinated beverage and have been spending too much money at coffee shops ever since.
There is nothing more comforting to me than a hot mug of coffee that has just enough cream to turn it a warm caramel color. On a warm summer day, a glass of iced coffee is the best way to revive me from a midafternoon slump.
Coffee is so valuable to me that I have accepted a cup of coffee as payment for editing papers for my friends.
It has been only within the past few years, however, that I have become more socially aware of one of the major global conflicts of the coffee business.
“Fair trade” is a phrase often heard in the socially conscious Pacific Northwest. However, until a couple of years ago, I wasn’t sure what it meant or why it is an important issue.
Often, products produced in developing nations are bought at very low prices by middlemen who are able to turn around and sell those products to major corporations for a large profit. The farmers and workers who originally produce the goods are the ones who are hurt by this system.
Fair trade products have been certified by Fair Trade USA or Fair Trade International, nonprofit organizations that guarantee products are produced and marketed to set standards. Ideally, this ensures that farmers and workers are given at least a set minimum price for their products.
Coffee is the second-most traded resource in the world, and each of the world’s top 10 coffee-producing nations are listed by the International Statistical Institution as developing countries, also known as Third World countries.
The coffee farmers in these nations, most of which lie between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, have very little power and are at the mercy of middlemen and large coffee corporations that buy their beans.
The Fairtrade Minimum Price, set by Fairtrade International, is currently at $1.40 per pound for arabica and $1.35 for robusta. This is the bare minimum that must be paid for fair trade coffee across the globe.
However, if the market price is higher than the set minimum fair trade price, buyers must pay the market price.
The set minimum price guarantees farmers will be able to make a living even when coffee prices fluctuate from season to season.
Five years ago, the Fairtrade Minimum Price was $1.20 to $1.25 per pound, depending on the type of coffee. In 2011, Fairtrade International set the minimum price at $1.35-$1.40, where it remains today.
According to a Huffington Post article by Kelsey Zimmerman, “Why Now is the Time to Start Drinking Fair Trade Coffee,” and Fair Trade International, fair trade farmers also receive a 20-cent social premium and an additional 30 cents per pound if their coffee is certified organic.
Fair trade programs also encourage farmers to be environmentally responsible, including using pesticides minimally if needed.
NPR’s Morning Edition featured a story, “Coffee With a Cause,” by Dan Charles in April 2013. Charles spoke with a Costa Rican farmer who grows fair trade coffee.
“Before, a tree used to be an obstacle, and we’d just cut it down,” the farmer said. “Now, we are coming to understand that the tree plays a role, and it can coexist with our commercial coffee plantation.”
Several large coffee companies have jumped on board with the fair trade philosophy.
Starbucks is one of the major supporters of fair trade coffee with its Coffee and Farmer Equality program. In 2012, Starbucks ethically sourced 93 percent of its coffee beans and is striving to ensure 100 percent is ethically sourced by 2015.
Even socially responsible companies in other business areas are wanting in on the fair trade coffee business. Blake Mycoskie, owner of TOMS shoes, based in Santa Monica, Calif., launched the TOMS Roasting Company on March 11, 2014.
“I thought of how TOMS could make a bigger impact, and what I realized is the organizations creating the greatest economic development are in the coffee trade,” Mycoskie was quoted in a New York Times story.
TOMS Roasting Company is partnered with Water for the People to build reliable water systems where the coffee is being grown. Every cup or bag of coffee sold will provide a day or week’s worth of water to the developing countries from which the coffee comes.
The Walla Walla Valley has several independent coffee shops, and while these are not at the global scale of Starbucks or TOMS, there is some movement to ensure coffee farmers are receiving fair wages for their beans.
The Walla Walla Roastery supplies coffee to several of the cafés in town, including The Olive and Walla Walla University’s The Atlas. The Roastery brews 23 different types and blends of beans from Central and South America, Indonesia and Africa, about 6 percent of which are certified fair trade.
Buying fair trade coffee does my Pacific Northwest heart good. It’s a socially and environmentally responsible way to feed my addiction.
As Zimmerman wrote in the Huffington Post, “By starting my day with a cup of fair trade, organic coffee I’m drinking coffee for which the farmers earned nearly 90 cents more than a regular cup of coffee.”
Though I may never meet the farmer who owned that plantation in El Salvador I saw in 2011, I think of him occasionally as I drink my coffee, and hope he is benefiting from a fair trade alliance.
Carolyn Green is a junior at Walla Walla University majoring in communications with an emphasis in public relations.