On Ethics: Buying Fairly

We work really hard to make decisions ethical towards all of: the environment, the producers, the nation of origin, and coffee in general as a product and as a community or industry.  

Our coffees are puchased from collectives or farms who share our values regarding protection or care for the environment and natural ecosystem they're growing in, respect and fair pay for labourers, while we are paying a fair price for the coffee we buy.  Many co-ops are networks of farms who all collectively self-monitor out of an interest in not devaluing something they use as a sales point to buyers like us.  Others work with external monitoring groups or NGOs.  

However, our coffees won't always come to us certified by familiar large "ethics" organizations.  

For instance, Fairtrade Brand.  We can't sell coffee as "Fair Trade" - the term is legally protected - unless the beans themseves were from a Fairtrade branded lot from a Fairtrade certified farm or collective.  

At each stage of that process getting green beans off trees and to us for roasting, the certification costs money.  Many of the co-ops we deal with simply cannot afford that certification, no matter how ethical their practices are.  And many more might be able to afford the cert, but do not see themselves gaining anything from membership.  

The Fair Trade certification guarantees certain prices - a base minimum that's currently $1.40 per pound of green or $0.20 above market rate, whichever is greater.  Current price as of today, June 3 2015 is $1.63, FT price would be $1.83; the cheapest coffee we have in stock today is ~$2.75, most are above $3.00.  While some of this goes to a middleman, our farmers still receive much more than the FT-mandated price for the coffee we're buying from them. 

It gets more complicated from there.  Sorry.  

Fairtrade sets maximum quotes on the amount of coffee they will buy and sell as "Fair Trade"; there is less world market demand for fair trade branded coffee than producers involved in the program - membership is limited in some regions, and not all coffee bought by Fairtrade can be sold at full price with the branding, meaning not all certified farmers are necessarily receiving the "guaranteed" rate for their coffee despite their participation.  Even if they could all afford membership, our non-Fairtrade farmers would not necessarily be allowed to join - nor would they necessarily see things improve compared to remaining independent or uncertified.

Because of price controls and mandatory middle-man sales, many high-quality farmers (like, for instance, the ones we buy from) would take a loss joining, as they would be unable to seek competitive pricing on a superior harvest. In order to maintain their coffee's certification, farmers are contractually obliged to sell to a specific middleman in their region in order to maintain the certification's chain of custody.  

Monitoring is an uncomfortable and generally messy business: Fairtrade has been criticized in the past for poor monitoring of the specific things they claim to address, and this is true with most Developed-World imposed ethics organizations across multiple industries - there is very little way to say with certainty that the locals don't just put on a good show when the monitors are in town, and year-round monitoring is unfeasible.  ...Not to mention patronizing.  We find it culturally uncomfortable to impose an external observer to monitor externally-defined "ethical standards" as opposed to trusting the self-interest and values of both individual co-op members and different co-ops.  

For the bulk of the farms and coops we buy from, what we might call "ethical standards" is simply part of doing business right, and monitoring or policing takes place from within and out of a genuine belief in the importance of treating the coffee, the land, and their workers "well" in a way that is fluid and flexible to the realities of their craft.  The coop will simply bar a member who is cheating the system under the understanding that their actions are directly harmful to both their community at large and to all other producers in the region if left unsanctioned. 

Ethics as they relate to coffee are messy.  At the end of the day, we simply have to take someone at their word when they tell us coffee is ethical, whether it's Fairtrade, a local coop, or a distributor or middleman.  We believe that intrinsic motivation to "do right" is a stronger incentive to uphold the ethics claimed than a price minimum and the occasional imported western observer, so we don't necessarily prioritize purchasing Fairtrade or similar certified coffees over coops we trust and products that are particularly great.  

If asked if our coffee is "fair trade," we can confidently say everything we offer is fairly traded - but not necessarily Fairtrade Branded. 

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