Sustainability made simple

Why Drink Fair Trade Coffee? Separating Fact From Fiction

A young woman with a brown bob sips coffee from a white porcelain mug
CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - Mikail Duran

There is a lot of misinformation about fair trade coffee, so let’s differentiate truth from myth and check out a few great brands.

Though fair trade coffee is becoming more widely available, we still have to be conscientious when choosing what we brew. First, it’s important to differentiate between fair trade vs. Fairtrade.

“Fair trade” (two words) refers to products, including food, drink and handicrafts, that are sourced fairly via supply chains that benefit and remunerate farmers and producers properly. “Fairtrade” (one word) is a certification system. Organizations must meet a strict set of criteria assessing the trading conditions of their supply chains to put “Fairtrade” on their labels.

We’ll take a look at some truths about fair trade coffee, then dispel some myths and finish up with a few recommendations for delicious, eco-conscious and ethical fair trade coffee brands.

Facts About Fair Trade Coffee

To be certified fair trade, products like coffee and tea must meet strict ethical and environmental criteria.

When tackling misinformation, it’s best to start with what’s true. With that in mind, here are some essential facts about fair trade coffee:

1. It’s Better For the Environment

As a whole, environmental protection is one of the rules of fair trade. While organic farming methods aren’t mandatory, various pesticides are prohibited in cultivation. In addition, organizations such as Fairtrade promote organic farming in countries where coffee is grown by paying an organic surcharge. 

2. Fair Trade Coffee Is — Drumroll — Fairer

Producers receive guaranteed minimum prices for fair trade coffee so that they are not exposed to world market price fluctuations and can adapt more easily to the effects of climate change. They receive support to improve social working conditions and combat poverty in coffee-growing regions. The fair trade of coffee and other products strengthens small farmers’ organizational structures and their negotiating position, provides further training, reduces child labor and much more. 

3. Fair Trade Makes a Difference

Coffee is the second most valuable export of developing countries, or countries in the Global South. According to Fairtrade International, approximately 125 million people depend on coffee for their livelihoods worldwide. They deserve to earn a reliable living.

The USA is the largest importer of coffee in the world, importing 6.9 billion dollars worth in 2021 alone. That means how we buy and drink coffee can greatly influence the livelihood of others. Purchasing fair trade coffee is a small way to do your part in making an enormous market fairer.

4. It’s More Sustainable

Sustainability does not only refer to environmental protection. Fair trade attempts to reconcile social, ecological and economic aspects of coffee production. The criteria for certified Fairtrade coffee usually include responsible water use and low-waste production. The use of all types of renewable energy is encouraged, and certain pesticides are banned. Employees are also trained in environmental protection.

Myths About the Fair Trade of Coffee

fair trade of coffee
Coffee farmers take a lot of pride in their crops, and should be paid fairly for their knowledge and expertise. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay - Those_Coffee_People)

Whenever a system presents itself as the better option — and demands an extra charge for it — people will naturally be skeptical. Some might want to emphasize perceived weaknesses, however ill-founded they are. Here are some common myths about fair trade coffee.

1. The Money Doesn’t Reach Small Farmers

On a 1:1 basis, this is actually true. Many consumers believe that rising grocery prices means more money will reach producers, but this isn’t the case for coffee or any other food or beverage product.

Fair trade is not a system that passes on an extra dollar or two to producers. It is a system that aims to establish a fairer trade. Unfortunately, that is far more complicated than “the farmer gets X percent of the surcharge.”

2. Buying Fair Trade Doesn’t Make a Difference

Whether you intend to or not, by drinking conventional coffee, you are promoting environmental destruction through monocultures and pesticides, payment below the subsistence level and exploitative child labor. These problems are real and can be directly attributed to our coffee consumption.

Fair trade may eliminate all of these problems, but it’s a good start as we search for other ways to change the system.

3. Fair Trade Beans Don’t Taste As Good

People often think that because the farmers are guaranteed trade, they can sell worse quality coffee beans. However, with fair trade coffee there are not only minimum prices but higher prices for higher quality. If you purchase a cheaper variety and don’t like it, just try another one that costs a little more.

4. Only 20% of the Coffee is Fair Trade

This argument comes up because of the regulations for fair trade of blended products. Take chocolate bars, for example. To be Fairtrade certified, chocolate must contain 20 percent fair trade ingredients. Any ingredient that goes into chocolate bars that can be fairly traded must also be Fairtrade certified.

This argument simply doesn’t apply to fair trade coffee. Coffee is not a mixed product. If the Fairtrade seal is on the coffee, it is 100% certified.

Fair Trade Coffee: Brand Spotlight

fair trade coffee
Whether you like to brew at home or go to coffee shops, choosing fair trade coffee benefits everyone involved in the production process. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pexels - Burst)

Fair trade coffee has become more mainstream in the past few years. You no longer have to shop at organic shops or directly from coffee roasters to find it. Stores like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and even Target and Walmart have fair trade coffee brands on their shelves. You can also purchase some great coffee online.

  • Wandering Bear Coffee Company – operating out of New York, this company focuses on strong and smooth fair trade, organic cold brew coffee. In addition to great coffee, they prioritize sustainability in terms of organic sourcing and recycled packaging. Find it online, on Amazon**, or in retailers across the country.
  • Ethical Bean Organic Coffee – hailing from Canada, this company is 100% Fairtrade Certified and certified organic. A unique feature on their coffee packaging is the traceability QR code – simply scan the code and find out exactly where your beans came from. Available in select stores countrywide and on Amazon.**
  • BLK + Bold – this Iowa coffee company not only sells some fair trade blends, they are also B-Corp certified! They donate 5% of their profits to projects working to eliminate homelessness among youths, sustain youth programs, and enhance workforce development. Widely available at Whole Foods and select Target stores, as well as on Amazon**, supporting this company makes a difference on a national and international level.
  • Kicking Horse Coffee100% Fairtrade and Organic since 2007, this Canadian coffee company roasts some pretty great beans. They contribute to several charities and offer fundraising programs. Available online, at select stores across the States, most Canadian grocery stores and on Amazon.**

For even more options, check out our guide Fair Trade Coffee: 9 Brands to Start Your Day. Being mindful of your choices is part of your responsibility as a conscious consumer. Small changes can make big differences!

** Links to retailers marked with ** or underlined orange are partially partner links: If you buy here, you actively support, because we will receive a small part of the sales proceeds. More info.

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