I have grown accustomed to startled glances from friends and acquaintances when I nonchalantly gulp down my typical gallon of black coffee a day. My descent into dependency has been a gradual process, moving from hot chocolate with a splash of decaf to the current no milk, no sugar, stomach-churning brew. Apparently, I am not alone; Americans guzzle400 million cups of coffee per day and the U.S. imports 4 billion dollars worth of coffee each year, making it the leading importer worldwide. Many of us, while gazing in rapture at our steaming mug, do not think about where our coffee came from, how it was produced, or why we need to start paying attention. Why?
The top coffee exporters, in order of volume produced, are: Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, India, Mexico, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Ivory Coast, and Uganda. Being a coffee worker in many of these countries isn’t easy. Thinking of Juan Valdez strolling happily with his donkey? Think again… Coffee workers face a variety of harsh conditions throughout the course of their job, including lack of protective equipment, exposure to pesticides, respiratory diseases, and may also be subjected extreme levels of sexual, physical, and verbal harassment. Additionally, most receive inadequate wages, such as in Kenya, where workers earn $12 per month – yes, MONTH – three to four times below the minimum wage. There are high instances of discrimination against women, such as in Mexico, where they are paid less than half of what men earn. Especially prevalent is the rate of child labor; the International Labor Organization estimates that there are 250 million working children in the coffee industry.
NEED A SPLASH OF GOOD NEWS?
The squalid conditions of coffee production parallel other high volume industries, but there is a ray of hope in combating these atrocities. In 1988, due to consumer demand, Dutch development agency, Solidaridad, created the first Fairtrade label, Max Havelaar, which supported just labor practices in Mexico. The Fairtrade movement is a consumer-powered initiative to support better prices, working conditions, sustainability, and trade terms for farmers and workers in developing countries. To earn the label, companies must pay prices that do not dip below the market value. By doing this, Fairtrade protects against normative trading practice, which typically give more money to the middle-man in the distribution process. While this puts the poorest producers at a disadvantage, Fairtrade sets baseline prices that give all manufacturers a level playing field.
The Fairtrade movement quickly caught on internationally, spreading to Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, France, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, Japan, Italy, the United States, and Canada in the late eighties and early nineties. In 1997, the Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO) was created in order to institute international standards. In 2002, FLO announced the International Fairtrade Certification Mark, which aimed to increase Fairtrade visibility and streamline export procedures.
Fairtrade is especially important for coffee producers, due to the perpetual flux in market prices. 2001, known as the year of the ‘Coffee Crisis’ caused price per pound to drop to 45 cents, which resulted in an overproduction of coffee to meet minimum monetary needs. Fairtrade serves to act as a counterbalance against the unpredictable market, giving farmers and workers security and base wages.
While coffee is a major industry affected by these improved regulations, Fairtrade aims to improve conditions in manufacturing a variety of products, such as bananas, cocoa, cotton, flowers, fruit, honey, gold, juice, rice, spices/herbs, sugar, tea, and wine. This movement is yet another example of the power of consumers to influence the market through specific demands. How? By voting with their dollars. By supporting Fairtrade products via their purchases, buyers caused the Fairtrade movement to grow from grassroots initiative to international phenomenon.
Want to volunteer or learn more about how you can get involved in Fairtrade? Visithttp://www.fairtradeusa.org/.
For a neat look at the adventures of Ugandan Andrew Rugasira, CEO of Good African Coffee, in trying to break into the coffee market read The New York Times piece here.
As always, we want to hear from YOU! What are your thoughts on the Fairtrade movement? How are you contributing? Where is there room for improvement?