Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:32 pm
The fluid and fast-moving global marketplace has created just such a situation in commodity markets such as coffee. After several years of good global harvests and the entry of very low-cost/low-quality producers (Vietnam and others), the commodity price of coffee has been driven near or below the cost of production. This non-sustainable situation has driven many producers out of the coffee business.
Not surprisingly, quality production standards are quickly abandoned when the commodity price does not justify the labor of production, let alone the extra effort required to deliver top-quality product. This situation threatens both the family farms that have produced coffee for generations and the critical supply of high-grade coffee that Alterra and other specialty roasters depend on.
This situation (and others in like commodities markets: cocoa, bananas, etc.) has created the Fair Trade movement. Flying in the face of traditional capitalism, Fair Trade guarantees a living wage price for producers that meet certain social, ecological and internal-governance production standards.
This economic model guarantees a livable wage to coffee farmers, encourages direct relationships between roaster and farmer and helps to smooth the wild ride of the commodity markets.
Several agencies around the world provide a double audit trail to ensure compliance on both the roaster side and the farmer side and to ensure the additional monies flow to the farmer and are not lost along the way. The only U.S. Fair Trade agency (not government affiliated), TransFair USA, has grown exponentially over the past several years, having tripled its certifications over three years to 18.5 million pounds in 2003.
The Fair Trade movement in coffee exists to address the inequities that come from a commodity-driven market that is blind to varying qualities and the unique circumstances in each growing country. However, the gains Fair Trade makes in getting more money to the coffee growers are threatened by the liability of creating a trading relationship where a guaranteed price is a disincentive for quality.
In our opinion, the value of Fair Trade may be in preserving coffee farms that have historically produced great coffee and maintaining the family and institutional knowledge that provides the remarkable aroma and subtle flavor nuances that specialty coffee depends on.
Using Fair Trade products in your establishment may provide a mark of distinction that differentiates you from the crowd.
Regardless of whether you are serving a cup of coffee in your restaurant or providing a needed cup-of-joe to your staff in the break room, Fair Trade certified coffee can help communicate the broader, longer sustainable vision your organization employs when identifying products to use.
This will inevitably drive customer and staff loyalty. In addition to Alterra, there are many resellers of Fair Trade products throughout Wisconsin. Visit www.fairtradecertified.org for a complete list and look for the black and white label that identifies the Fair Trade Certified guarantee.
Lincoln Fowler is the owner of Alterra Coffee Roasters, Milwaukee.
October 29, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI