Benefits of fair trade coffee outweigh negatives

I'm having a harder time these days finding fair trade coffee on store shelves. It's being pushed out by other coffee labels. In my neighborhood, the big groceries only sell the name brands. So I shop for coffee at two coffee shops and an organic grocery.

Two of the proprietors were surprised at my complaint and came over to look for themselves at the limited choice. They pointed out the certifications: Smithsonian bird friendly, Rainforest Alliance, USDA Organic and UTZ Certified. But only a couple of packages were labeled fair trade.

These are all expensive coffees, but only fair trade guarantees that the growers are paid a negotiated price and commit to fair labor conditions; that the coffee farm co-ops are democratic and transparent organizations; and that part of the profit is invested in community development.

The other certifications all deal with growing conditions, not the conditions of the laboring community. However, while much of fair trade coffee is not labeled organic, the fair labor conditions stipulation is a big protection against pesticides. And the requirement that sellers be cooperatives promotes continuous quality improvement.

The third local proprietor insisted that their buyer purchases direct from the best quality growers, paying fair prices. The buyer at an elite grocery gave me the same line. Maybe so. It's like the employer who pays good wages to undermine the union but isn't held to any workplace standards. I explained very politely that I wouldn't buy the coffee.

Fair trade coffee is expensive. But buying it is one thing we can do to participate in a just economy.

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