What is Fair Trade Coffee?

Posted by Chris Treter.

Hmmm great question! Glad I asked. Fair Trade to many means many different things. This blog will further investigate, examine and deepen our understanding of the quest for true fair trade and environmental sustainability within the wonderful world of coffee – a beverage over half of all adults drink nearly every day.

From its humble beginnings just 20 years ago, the movement has grown to a multimillion dollar a year industry. Today there is fair trade certified bananas, rice, fruit preserves, soap, tea, chocolate, coffee and more. Crafts, textiles, clothes, and spoons are sold as being fair trade. The trend has caught the eyes of multinational companies who see both the benefit for the farmer AND to gain access to an exponentially growing market. There is a fair trade month, a world fair trade day and fair trade towns. As is true with all movements – especially when the all powerful dollar is involved, fair trade has become co-opted, and deepened, and sometimes dismissed.

IFAT Fair Trade

FLO Fair Trade CoffeeTransfair USAFair Trade Federation Logo

To gain market share, some companies have used the word “fair trade” loosely – not following the core values and directives of third party certification systems and instead declaring themselves to be “fair trade.” Some have made their own version of “fair trade” to meet their own needs and “green” themselves rather then tending to the needs of the farmers or producers who make the goods. Intelligensia claims “direct trade” while Starbucks has built their own “Cafe Standards,” many argue neither fully works within an international movement to improve lives in growing communities in an integrated manner. On the other hand many companies that make up Cooperative Coffee – the only 100% fair trade green been importing cooperative in the United States – are working with allies and farmers in the field to deepen fair trade.

Certification systems and labels have been cropping up, at times confusing consumers. Transfair USA offers “fair trade certified” certification working with growing cooperatives who are certified through the Fair Trade Labeling Organization. Rainforest Alliance offers certification that aims to “conserve biodiversity and create sustainable livelihoods” in coffee growing communities. Utz Certified says it provides consumers with assurance of “responsible coffee production and sourcing.”

But, true fair trade is more then a label or buying coffee (or tea or sugar etc.) at a “fair price.” It is a deepening of relationships and building bridges between producers and buyers while staying cognizant of the fact that growers the world over are the losers in a global economic systems where they are responsible for the production of the very crop that keeps them in poverty. The following will be an examination of the phenomenon of fair trade and environmental sustainability.

Using Higher Grounds Trading Co. and our partner farmers as an open book – an experiment if you will – we’ll be reporting from coffee growing regions the world over, asking farmers what they think fair trade is and should be while drawing on our experiences as a quickly growing company attempting to stay authentic to our mission. At the same time we’ll be discussing the tried and true practices of allies in the field of fair trade and examination of those that are rising eyebrows in the industry. You better grab a cup of joe for this one….


16 Responses to What is Fair Trade Coffee?

  1. timjo62 says:

    Your site is now linked to UH Students for Fair Trade. Check it out:


  2. beeractivist says:

    timjo62 – cool. Thanks man. Now you’re linked here too.

    Chris O’

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    slim coffee…

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