Is Fair Trade Coffee Fair?

Aron Solomon

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As we coffee fanatics know, we are in what is known as coffee’s Third Wave. While some think of Third Wave coffee simply as the coffee scene post-2000, it’s more complex, just like anything in the coffee world is probably more complex than it needs to be.

If the first wave of coffee was my mom sipping her Taster’s Choice in the kitchen, and the second wave was Ubiqui-bucks and its progeny, coffee’s Third Wave may have been kicked off by this memorable article about coffee in Norway. It defines the continuum as:

“First Wave, Second Wave, Third Wave: this is how I think of contemporary coffee. There seem to be three movements influencing what Erna Knutsen, a Norwegian immigrant to America, termed Specialty Coffee. Each approach has its own set of priorities and philosophies; each has contributed to the consumer’s experience—and our livelihoods. Occasionally, the waves overlap; and one inevitably spills over to influence the next. What have we chosen to accept as conventional coffee wisdom? What have we rejected? What does the next wave have to offer?”

As we are actually quite late in the Third Wave, a lot of coffee achievers (raises hand) spend actual time thinking about what’s going to come next; how we will transition from late-stage Third Wave into coffee’s inevitable and most welcome Fourth Wave.

The notion of sustainability is going to play a huge role in that. A subset of the notion of the sustainability of coffee as a drink, a culture, a lifestyle, and a massive industry centers around how we get our coffee and from whom we choose to buy it.

“Fair trade” coffee isn’t a brand new thing. While it has been around for a while, it has never caught on in the way so many people thought and hoped it would.

Fair trade coffee is coffee that fair trade organizations have certified as having been produced to fair trade standards. If you’re thinking that this statement doesn’t mean anything, you’re not far from the truth. While we have come to understand that Fair Trade-certified coffee has been tracked throughout from the stage of beans growth through the entire supply chain to meet fair labor standards, how amorphous and opaque the concept is really hasn’t helped it become more mainstream.

To me, fair trade coffee never resonated. Every experience I had in many cities around the world buying or drinking it was subpar. The places that sold it were way too “touchy-feely” for me, often unclean, and the coffee itself was usually just okay. The concept never resonated with me anywhere near as much in practice as the theory of fair trade did.

That’s probably because the practice of fair trade has fallen short. Even a decade ago, the Stanford Social Innovation Review focused on fair trade coffee as one of the global issues they wanted to deep dive into. Their observations were surprising to many, especially in 2011, who had been inculcated to believe fair trade good, any other coffee bad:

“Fair Trade-certified coffee is growing in consumer familiarity and sales, but strict certification requirements are resulting in uneven economic advantages for coffee growers and lower quality coffee for consumers. By failing to address these problems, industry confidence in Fair Trade coffee is slipping.”

The Stanford study added:

“Retailers explain that neither FLO—the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International umbrella group—nor Fair Trade USA, the American standards and certification arm of FLO, has sufficient data showing positive economic impact on growers.”

And not much has changed for the better for fair trade coffee over the years since this piece. Perhaps it’s ultimate demise will be that fair trade itself is now practically absent from the lexicon of the coffee scene, whatever that is exactly. It’s just not a prized notion anymore and when one goes shopping for coffee, absent natural food stores, fair trade coffee is pretty much nowhere to be found.

So if we leave the idea of fair trade coffee behind, is the notion of coffee sustainability lost?

Absolutely not.

Mark my words, as someone who has written about coffee for well over a decade, and followed the coffee scene throughout the world, my prediction is that the next big thing in sustainability is buying locally roasted coffee.

As Josh Geist, a Pittsburgh lawyer and coffee lover, observes:

“People who regularly spend money on coffee want to know what they’re getting. If they don’t understand what something like Fair Trade coffee is, what they certainly will understand and appreciate is coffee that’s roasted in cities and communities where they drink it, rather than shipped from halfway across the globe.”

Aside from the really obvious (read: “very fresh coffee”) locally-roasted coffee is far more sustainable. I used to live in Berlin. I drank coffee grown in Ethiopia and roasted on site at my favorite Berlin cafe. Berlin is a fantastic coffee city with at least a dozen superb roasteries.

So when I moved to Montréal, I could have had my favorite cafe ship roasted beans, as they roast three times per week and ship all over the world. But that’s an infinitely less sustainable solution from finding places here in Montreal that roast their own Ethiopian coffee. In fact, the year since I’ve been back, I’ve noticed a big increase in the number of superb local roasters. While it isn’t difficult for me to order coffee from my favorite Berlin, Prague, or Helsinki roasteries, I live literally three hundred feet from an amazing roastery/cafe. How can I, in good conscience, justify ordering beans from thousands or miles away and essentially giving the thumbs up to a completely pointless addition to the global coffee carbon footprint?

At least as importantly, buying locally-roasted coffee is also a painless way to truly support local businesses. For these roasteries, the margin on a pound of beans is really decent. Remember that the more bespoke the operation, the lower the margin will be. A great roastery invests in its people. The training is mind-blowing. They take trips to get to know their coffee producers (yeah - admittedly not great for the carbon footprint), they offer public tastings to educate coffee drinkers about how to identify what they like and dislike in a roast.

But especially in these ongoing COVID-times, where your local roastery is able to sell pounds of beans, thay add a lot to the financial viability of their business, as opposed to simply selling cups of coffee and hopefully delicious baked things. Remember that many of these small cafes and roasteries are true mom-and-pop shops that need and deserve our support.

One of my favorite Montreal cafes in my neighborhood isn’t a roastery, but stocks usually between four and six different locally-roasted coffees and no coffees roasted outside the city. The response by their patrons has been superb.

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Aron Solomon

Admittedly, in technology terms local roasting only addresses the back end of the coffee process rather than the front end, upon which fair trade has always focused. Buying locally-roasted coffee is in no way a perfect solution, as it doesn’t remedy the generally small amount of pennies on every dollar that the coffee producer gets for their harvest.

But at the same time, when we really think about the staggering numbers in the coffee industry, what I and fellow coffeehounds can really do each day to make an individually small bit collectively impactful decision is to think about what we’re drinking and its path from field to cup.

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Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital, who has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world.

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