How fair is fair trade coffee?
I was woken this morning at 5am by a lonely cat noisily attempting to explore a large paperbag full of heavy upholstery parephenalia, you know, the kind of bag that crinkles and then makes a very loud thud when it hits the floor. It took a few hours and a large cup of coffee but I’m finally ready to move on from this rather unpleasant start to the day. Chances are good that when you read this you’ve had your morning caffeine jolt too. Apparently more than 50% of americans are regular coffee drinkers,with an average consumption of between three and four cups a day. That’s a lot of coffee – 196 billion cups of it by my calculations, which some say makes coffee the second most traded commodity in the world, and which certainly gives coffee buyers a lot of purchasing power.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot more about my daily coffee. I recently read Confessions of an Eco-Sinner by Fred Pearce which is a very enlightening book that I highly recommend – in each short chapter Pearce selects one object that he owns and attempts to track down how it got to him through the global trade network. His chapter on coffee takes him to Kenya where he visits with a group of farmers who are part of a fair trade collective. Their coffee is purchased for $1.46 per lb which is 16% more than the price of coffee on the open market. In addition, the fair trade organization also provide the farmers with community investments in education, local infrastructure, etc.
But as Pearce notes, this additional compensation seems minimal when viewed by comparison with the tremendous amounts of money the coffee fetches from the consumer. By his calculation the same coffee that fetches $1.46 for the farmers who grew it, is turned into $300 worth of lattes at a Starbucks stateside. Pearce describes one farmer’s 5-acre coffee farm where 1400 trees produce around 660 lbs of coffee in a year. At the going rate for fair trade coffee that is around $1,000 for his years worth of toil. My further calculations reveal that Starbucks will rake in the same $1,000 selling fancy coffee drinks made with just over three lbs of coffee. It doesn’t really seem like such a fair trade at all.
In my dream world the race for ever cheaper caffeine would reverse as we all clamor to pay higher, fairer trade prices for our morning brew. I hope a few of you will join me in this quest, if all the math, and the moralizing didn’t totally alienate the audience that I no doubt drew in here thanks to Noerah’s gorgeous coffee photographs!