Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Fair Trade practice virtuous endeavor

When you sluggishly brew your morning pot of coffee, you probably don't think about where each drop comes from, much less its importance in the global market — you just want your sweet, sweet caffeine.

Coffee, however, is the world's second-most traded commodity after oil. It accounts for a third of worldwide tap water consumption, ensures the livelihood of at least 25 million farmers and their families and is consumed on a massive scale — more than 500 billion cups each year globally.

American society is obsessed with coffee; it is served morning, noon and night, and the United States alone imports more than 1,200 tons of coffee annually.


With so many Americans drinking coffee, it is surprising how many are unaware of the labor-intensive process the coffee plant requires, the millions of farmers that depend on this plant or of the struggle of small agricultural towns in Brazil, Colombia or Guatemala when the global coffee price drops.

Local entrepreneurs in Madison are trying to change this.

Strolling down State Street, it wouldn't take much effort to notice the words "Fair Trade" posted inside many of Madison's storefront windows. As a buzzword of the past decade or two, many people have heard of Fair Trade, but may not know the politics, economics or terminology behind it. Anything with the word "fair" in it sounds pretty promising; however, there is much more to it than a name.

The global price of coffee is determined just like any other commodity — through the economic model of supply and demand. If the global price of coffee drops, small-scale farmers and co-ops in countries like Brazil — where almost a third of the world's coffee is produced — must drop out of coffee bean production because the production cost is more than the market price. Coffee is not only a daytime job for these farmers; it is a way of life.

These farmers often have no choice other than to keep working — even if they are not making enough money to fully support their family. They will sell their coffee beans at a price that is much too low and will often see little or none of the profit that will come from their coffee. Tragically, it is not uncommon for children to bypass school in order to help support the family. Fair Trade Organizations are working to change this.

The term "Fair Trade" can have several implications. The idea started with individual companies called Alternative Trading Organizations that make a commitment to work with and buy directly from farmers growing certain goods — in this case, coffee. Buying directly from the grower cuts out the middleman and the higher prices they charge coffee shop owners. However, coffee shop owners who "trade fairly" are willing to pay that same high price but instead, directly to the growers in order to bring them increased revenue.

A certified Fair Trade product will most likely support poverty alleviation and sustainable development, independence of producers and growers, payment of a fair price, gender equality, safe and healthy working conditions and environmentally friendly practices.

Equal Exchange, the largest and oldest for-profit Fair Trade company in the United States, targeted Madison about ten years ago as a hub for fair-trade products like coffee, tea, sugar and chocolate. Madison was picked for its progressive and liberal politics, and it didn't take long for the trend to catch on.

Lori Henn, the owner of Fair Trade Coffeehouse and Michelangelo's, was happy to explain her motives behind buying fair trade coffee. Married to a man from Colombia and raised in an agricultural surrounding herself, she felt a personal responsibility to support fair trade coffee.

"The coffee business in these countries totally affects the dynamic of the economy," she explained. "With these huge buyers that don't go through Fair Trade, it's a false economy, an economic machine."

Fair Trade Coffeehouse buys its beans from two roasters — Johnson Brothers in Madison and Equal Exchange. The beans are largely organic and shade-grown. Fairly traded coffee is also affiliated with the Audubon Society, working to preserve wildlife.

Liz Tymus, the manager of Espresso Royale, had similar thoughts about the importance of Fair Trade. Although all of ER's coffee isn't Fair Trade, at least 33 percent of its drip coffee is, supplied by a company called Peace Coffee.

"Fair Trade is great because everybody helps each other out. We buy locally produced pastries, and we roast our own beans," she said. Espresso Royale, a company based in Ann Arbor, Mich., also works with a charity called "Solidario Kids," which supports the children and families of coffee-producing towns, not just the growers.

Other coffee shops in Madison, such as Steep 'n Brew, offer Fair Trade-Certified coffee as well. Ironically, although Starbucks only buys about 6 percent of its coffee as Fair Trade, it is the largest buyer of Fair Trade coffee in the world, due to the almost 300 million pounds of coffee it purchased in 2006.

The Fair Trade movement, of course, has criticisms. Raising the price paid to growers creates an artificially high market price — or a "price floor." Due to a higher pay, producers will grow more, creating a discrepancy between supply and demand. This can, in turn, end up helping Fair Trade growers, but hurting other growers by actually lowering the world price. This is not, critics say, how economics is supposed to work.

A Fair Trade Certification can also be very expensive, costing upward of $20,000 or even $30,000. Many small farmers cannot afford this.

Like many social organizations, Fair Trade is controversial and will probably never become a wide-scale phenomenon. Like any other progressive movement, it has its limits, but for those it does help, the change could not be more welcome. Perhaps the best part about Fair Trade, which both Ms. Henn and Ms. Tymus explained to me, is that it is not just a product, it is a socially responsible movement involving charity and a commitment to the community.

Ms. Henn summed up the sentiment best when she said, "I don't want to feed a broker in a big city. I want to feed a grower in the highlands of Guatemala."

Laura Brennan ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in communicative disorders.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, this article should have said that America imports more
than 1,200,000 tons of coffee each year. We regret the error.

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