Saturday, November 05, 2005
The Fairest Cup of Coffee
Ahhhhh! The first cup of coffee. What a joy! The full flavor! The enticing aroma...hmmm! The caffeine kick! Sometimes we become so immersed in the pleasure of the moment that our thoughts do not necessarily revolve on the workers who grew, collected, packaged and transported the beans. But I'm sure we'll be forgiven if we devote this particular time to enjoyment of our coffee.
The time to think of the folks who are responsible for bringing that cup of coffee to our tables is when we make our purchase decisions. Is the coffee that you drink in the morning Fair Trade? (This basically means that the coffee beans were purchased from a cooperative or a grower at a fair price of at least $1.26 per per pound).
Several months ago, we stopped buying Folgers, Maxwell House, Hills Brothers and switched to Green Mountain Coffee, a popular Fair Trade brand sold at Wild Oats supermarket. Then we started hearing reports that Green Mountain paid the benchmark price of $1.26 per pound on only 12 percent of the coffee bean it purchases. After some research, I learned that the reports were true. Then I started to wonder if the packages of coffee were were buying were actually Fair Trade. Did this mean that the Green Mountain coffee packages sold at Wild Oats had a mixture of Fair-Trade and not-so-Fair-Trade beans?
Not so, said Transfair USA, one of the organizations that certifies a product as Fair Trade. "Mixing Fair Trade coffee with non-Fair Trade coffee is not allowed in terms of being considered a Fair Trade product," Transfair staffer Kay Allen told me in an e-mail message. "100 percent of the contents of a product must be Fair Trade certified in order to label it as such."
What happens is that Fair Trade varieties represent only about one-eighth of Green Mountain's offerings. The remaining 88 percent of the coffee sold by the company has not been certified as "Fair Trade." Now, Green Mountain has pledged to gradually increase the share of Fair Trade coffee it sells to 25 percent. That would still leave 75 percent as non-Fair Trade! One of the criticisms of Green Mountain is that its flexibility to sell Fair Trade coffee is limited because of its public listing on the NASDAQ stock exchange. Shareholders would not stand for a policy that would limit the company profitablity.
As a matter of principle, we have begun switching our loyalties to companies like Dean's Beans and Equal Exchange, which purchase 100 percent of their beans at fair-trade prices. Still, I would have no qualms buying Green Mountain's Transfair-certified varieties at Wild Oats (and there are many) every now and then. I have confidence that the beans contained in those particular packages were purchased at fair prices.
And Green Mountain actually looks good when compared with the likes of Starbucks, which only buys 1 percent of its beans at fair prices. "Most of the Big Boys...have turned Fair Trade over to their marketing departments. So, instead of seeing the need to pay all farmers a living wage because it is ethical and good for business in the long run, these companies are limiting Fair Trade to just another offering ('Today we have Colombian, Hazelnut and Fair Trade'), " said Dean's Beans. (The above photo is of a young Nicaraguan girl holding coffee berries. It comes from Dean's Beans Web site).