Fair Trade Field Notes from Guatemala

December 1, 2007

Posted by Chris O’Brien

Chris Treter, one of the three bloggers here at Bean Activist, is way too modest to toot his own horn so I’m going to do it for him.

Michael over at CRS Fair Trade recently blogged in praise of Chris T’s willingness to pitch in and help farmers get a fair shake at making a decent living from the coffee trade.

Michael and Chris met up in Guatemala to conduct a series of basic roasting workshops for four different cooperatives: Loma Linda, Nueva Alianza, Santa Anita and APECAFORM, a cooperative that CRS has supported since the early 1990s. After their truck got stuck in a ditch for a couple hours, they finally made it to their rural highland farm-community destination.

The growers they visited wanted to learn how to roast beans themselves for their own domestic market. This is a great way to add value at the farmer cooperative level and reduce the environmental footprint of coffee by developing local markets.

Part of fixing the flaws of the global coffee trade includes farmers getting more of the value of their product. Green coffee is an export commodity, whereas roasted beans are a gourmet specialty product with much greater value. Farmers who can supplement their export earnings with even a modest amount of domestic sales of roasted beans may well be on the way to a more livable and stable financial footing.

I’m looking forward to seeing more efforts like this, and its no surprise that my pals at Higher Grounds are leading the way. I’d be glad to hear from any readers know of other northern coffee companies helping growers to develop domestic markets for roasted beans in producer countries. This could be promising trend for farmers.


Who Owns My Coffee?

November 25, 2007

Posted by Chris O’Brien

As I research the practices of various coffee companies, one of the challenges is to establish who owns each brand in the marketplace. It’s one thing to talk about Starbucks’ business practices, but when we do, we also need to realize that appear in the marketplace under different brands, such as Seattle’s Best.

So, in an effort to follow the tentacles to the heart of the beast, I’ve started a modest little list here of coffee companies and the brands they own. I’ll update this as I get new information – please comment if you have something to add.

Underneath the bold corporate name are some of the company’s relevant brands and principal products:

sugar, milk, coffee
Seattle’s Best sugar, milk, coffee
Tazo Tea
Ethos plastic bottles with some water in them
Hear Music CDs
Torrefazione Italia coffee shops, closed by Starbucks in 2005

Hills Bros coffee
Nescafe instant coffee
Taster’s Choice
Coffee-mate flavored sugar

KRAFT FOODS formerly owned by Altria a.k.a. Philip Morris
coffee, tea and loads of related accessories
Maxwell House
coffee, instant coffee, related accessories
decaffeinated coffee

Folgers instant, decaf, flavored, and regular coffee
Millstone bulk, decaf, flavored, regular, organic, and fair trade coffees

Douwe Egberts coffee
Senseo coffee machines and coffee
Insecticides strangely Sara Lee also markets a diverse line of insecticides under various brand names suchs Pyrel and Ridsect
A long list of other coffee brands such as Bravo, Maison du Cafe, Natrena, and many more

Hills Bros
instant cappuccino, canned coffee, and loads of gear
Chase & Sanborn (strangely, I couldn’t find a website for this classic brand – has it been killed?)
Chock full ‘o Nuts decaf, flavored, “bricks”, and more coffee related stuff

Beans in the Home Roaster

November 22, 2007

I started home-roasting my own coffee a few months ago. I use a “Nesco Smokeless Roaster.” I chose this model partly because it has a catalytic converter to capture most of the smoke generated during the roasting process. It takes me 20-25 minutes to roast up enough beans for several pots of coffee. Here’s a picture below of the roaster (coffee porn?). If you have a microscope, you might notice that it says “Zach and Danis” on the side. That’s the old name for this model. I snagged the image from Seven Bridges and they apparently just have an old photo, but I actually got the Nesco from them and its the same as what is pictured here.

Nesco I also ordered a five pound sampler bag of ten different varieties of green beans. They are all certified Fair Trade and USDA organic.

Using the roaster is very simple, but I’m still learning about which kinds of beans I like best and how long each should be roasted. So I’m going to blog about each roast as a way of teaching myself more about the beans and their roasts, and in order to share a little info about the coffee growers that grew the beans.

This morning I roasted some Sumatra Takengon. According to the Seven Bridges website, these beans are shade grown on the highland slopes of the Gayo Mountains near Laut Tawar in the Takengon region of Northern Sumatra where over 200 small coffee producers involved in producing this varietal. The farmers and communities of this remote region face a number of environmental and socio-economic challenges, including soil erosion, deforestation, low and unstable incomes. The organization, production, technical assistance and higher prices for certified organic, fair trade coffee help them fetch higher prices for their harvest. The beans are “semi-washed,” and come described as being “full bodied, slightly fruity, and clean with a sweet finish. . . great as a varietal, blender and perfect for espresso.” If you’re interested in Sumatran coffee, you can also check out the beans Higher Grounds sells from the Gayo Organic Coffee Growers Association.

I roasted about 5.5 ounces in the Nesco for 23 minutes. At first whiff, they smelled very acrid so I’m afraid I might have burnt them. I’m already drinking my morning mug of “1st Grade Ethiopian Arabica” from a company called Mamo Kacha PLC so tasting the Sumatran will have to wait until tomorrow. Sorry to leave you hanging! Oh, and for the record, I would have cited the Ethiopian regional growing name and referenced its certifications but this coffee came as a gift from a friend who recently traveled there. Since she bought the beans in-country in a grocery store, they aren’t labeled in the way they would be if they were being sold in the specialty coffee market here so I don’t know much about them except that they are delicious (and free!).

Is there Fair Trade Clothing for a Conscientious Coffee Drinker?

November 22, 2007

Conscientious coffee drinkers know to seek Fair Trade, organic, shade-grown beans for their morning buzz. But as important as coffee is to the world economy and to its millions of devotees, its just one of the many things we buy. What does an enlightened fair trade coffee drinker don when its time to pull on something as simple as a t-shirt?

Fair Trade began in the 1940s when a number of religious groups like SERRV International and Ten Thousand Villages started marketing hand-crafted goods from economically impoverished artisans in less industrialized countries in the global south. Other early fair traders created direct trading relations between Northern marketers and small Southern artisans as part of a larger political movement aimed at countering corporate-lead capitalist imperialism.

Eventually, fair traders, or “alternative traders” as they were also known, realized that commodity goods like coffee could be powerful levers in rebalancing the global trade machine since agricultural goods generate the most cash income for millions of the world’s poor. Today, a sophisticated global system is in place for verifying “fair” trading relationships between peasant farmers and the northern customers who consume the goods they grow. Just look for Fair Trade Certified coffee, tea, cocoa, bananas, wine or any of a number of other commodity food goods.

But the global apparel industry has yet to catch up. Worker exploitation still runs rampant throughout the world’s many sweatshop apparel factories. So where does a conscientious coffee drinker turn when its time to buy some threads (besides the thrift store)?

A handful of “sweatfree” clothing producers have been working to perfect a fair trade model for working with garment workers. Five years ago Maggie’s Organics helped a group of women in Nicaragua build their own factory called The Fair Trade Zone. They documented the story in a brief video called Ants that Move Mountains. If the tale of how these women overcame the destruction of Hurricane Mitch and built their own factory doesn’t make you want to go out and buy their camisoles, you must be a nudist.

A new business on the block is called Counter Sourcing. Company owner Joe Falcone recently contacted me to share news about their success converting the University of Wisconsin campus to cotton tees delivered through their fair trade channels. Here’s the model they use for equitable distribution of the profits made from the t-shirt trade.

Pie chart

An essential link that remains missing in the apparel trade is certification – who is verifying the claims made by companies like Maggie’s and Counter Sourcing? Personally, I have confidence in Maggie’s Organics since I’m friends with the owner and know her commitment runs deep at a personal level. Likewise, Counter Sourcing appears to be on the level; the founder has a long list of credentials from the garment worker justice movement, and I have social links to him too through a mutual friend that introduced us. These kind of social links are important in establishing credibility. But trusting a personal friend who runs a business is different from trusting an unknown company who makes a fair trade claim in a hang-tag without having any verification to back it up. Should the average consumer trust these company claims?

So the good news is that fair trade or “sweatfree” apparel is inching its way into the marketplace. Maggie’s and Counter Sourcing are just two examples of a growing cadre of conscientious clothiers; check out Co-op America’s National Green Pages for a directory of many more.

These small companies are a great start. They are blazing the fair trade trail for others to follow. In fact, Counter Sourcing even claims to be in dialogue with TransFair USA about creating a Fair Trade certification standard for clothing. That needs to happen, whether its with TransFair or another group, in order for this small movement to move beyond being a niche and become a viable strategy for replacing the conventional trade system – one that relies on widespread worker abuse and exploitation. For an example of how this leads to success, look at the growth the organic food movement has experienced as a result of the nationalization of standards with the USDA National Organic Program – organic has been the fastest growing segment of the grocery industry ever since the standards went into effect ten years ago. Its time for that to happen with fair trade clothing.

How to Find Independent Coffee Shops: “Delocate”

November 10, 2007

Posted by Chris O’Brien

When I travel, my mission is to visit every brewpub within striking distance. For coffee though, I always make do with whatever coffee is provided in the hotel room. It is never very good and it is never organic, fair trade or from a small business. But hey, it’s free.

DelocatorNow it’s getting easier to find local, independent coffee shops though, so I might have to start venturing out of the hotel room early enough to sample some black gold from a local cafe or roaster before my business meetings get started.

Here’s how you do it: just visit the Delocator. Enter in the zip code of the area where you want to find a local cafe and it spits out a user-generated list with addresses, phone numbers and web links to all the independent cafes in the neighborhood.

Here’s the purpose of the tool, according to the Delocator website:

Corporate industries invading American neighborhoods, from coffee chains to bookstore chains, music chains and movie theatre chains, pose a threat to the authenticity of our unique neighborhoods. Although there is room on the map for shared territories – both the homogenous corporate enterprise and the independent ventures across the nation, our independent, community-operated businesses deserve your dime.

And it’s true. They do deserve your dime because on average they return that dime to the neighborhood at much higher rates than do corporate chains. I wrote an article about this for American Brewer magazine, right here.

So get out of the house (or hotel room) a little more often and support your locally-owned coffee shop. And don’t forget to ask them for organic, fair trade coffee.