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How Much Do You Know About Your Fair Trade Coffee?

Follow the coffee bean trail as it travels from the farmer to your cup.

Following Fair Trade: Even the most locally minded eaters tend to consume some foods and beverages that only grow in distant regions—usually the hot and tropical ones—and many of those areas are also home to some of the world’s poorest populations. To ensure people at the origin of global supply chains receive just treatment, adequate pay, and access to health, education and a good quality of life, the Fair Trade standard was created. Fair Trade regulations often have positive environmental consequences, but at the root protects people—facilitating farming practices and trade relationships that empower farmers and their communities.

While it’s fairly common to see the Fair Trade label on coffee due thanks to pureveyors like Starbucks, Fair Trade coffee makes up only four percent of all coffee sold in the U.S. There are numerous labels found on coffee today—organic, shade-grown, even bird-friendly. None of these are required by Fair Trade coffee but they often go hand-in-hand, with farmers offered an incentive to transition their farms to organic production. Today nearly 50 percent of fair trade coffee imports are also organic, and all fair trade certified coffee is free of GMOs as well as a select list of chemical pesticides.


Fair Trade farmers only pick coffee berries that are fully ripe—what they call the “red cherries”—which ensures that they are sending the highest quality into the supply chain and specialty coffee market. Limiting their yield to what’s perfectly ripe requires picking by hand, requiring several passes around the tree for every viable berry to be plucked. This is time-consuming and laborious, and can’t be done by a machine. So if you’re paying a little extra to drink a Fair Trade cup, those additional cents are going in part to compensation for the physical work of the workers.

In conventional coffee farming, the berries are often mechanically harvested or stripped from the tree in a single pass, which pulls berries at various stages of ripeness, along with twigs and other agricultural trimmings that ultimately get separated from the berries and discarded. Unripe berries that come off during this process also get tossed, so these sweeping harvest methods must be done when most of the coffee is as ripe as possible, to maximize the yield.


Most coffee-growing regions use a cash-based economy. For farmers acting independently in the free market, the need for cash between harvests often forces them to sell beans for pennies on the dollar to a buyer—often referred to as a coyote—who will then turn around and sell it at a higher price at market.

The Fair Trade standard sets a floor price for coffee that dictates the minimum a farmer must be paid for their crop if the end product is to be labeled Fair Trade. If the market price of coffee is higher than the floor price, the farmers gets the market price, but if the market price falls, the farmer is still entitled to the floor price, establishing protection against steep market fluctuations.

Fair Trade farmers are also organized into cooperatives, allowing them access to credit on the international market. Traditionally, coffee farmers are paid just once per year at harvest time, so the ability to gain credit means they can sustain their families more consistently throughout the year.


Where the product crosses over from its origin country into its destination country, there can be a significant power imbalance on the two sides of a sale negotiation. Shipping operators don't always act in the interest of their source, and might sell products outside of Fair Trade parameters, breaking a link in the fair supply chain.

One key aspect of the fair trade standard is traceability. From the farm to the retail shelf, there’s a paper trail at each stage of the supply chain. Importers and exporters are included in this chain, so shipping companies are also held to the expectation of fair prices being paid to sellers at the product origin.

When the beans reach roasters, brands, manufacturers or retailers, they pay a community development premium that goes back to the farmer cooperative and gets invested in social benefit initiatives including community infrastructure improvements, education programs, and local health care. The members of the coop vote to decide on how this premium gets invested, to ensure it’s the most appropriate use of funds for that community.

Images 1 and 2 from Fair Trade USA

Image 3 (cc) from Flickr user sarahemcc

This post is in partnership with Ben & Jerry's

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