We often get asked if our coffee beans are fair trade and/or organic. Our answer is always the same: yes and no. Some of our beans are fair trade certified, and some of our beans are organic certified. Some are both, and some are neither. I usually don’t take the time to explain why this is, because most people that ask aren’t particularly interested in a full-length discussion about coffee certifications, they just want to feel good about spending their money on our coffee. I understand this, but I also think it is high time that we have that discussion. What follows is a brief (very brief) overview of our take on “cause” coffee.
The first thing to point out is that “fair trade” certified coffee does not mean better quality coffee. Fair trade is all about price. It means that everyone in the chain—from the farmer to the roaster—are agreeing to either pay a higher price, or take a lower profit to ensure that everyone in the chain is being equitably served. Primarily, fair trade is about guaranteeing the farmer a “fair” price for his product. In essence, this gives the farmer a certain peace of mind about the price he will be receiving for his crop. Importers and roasters pay a higher wage for this coffee, knowing that they will pass the increase on to their customers in the form of a feel-good story about their daily cup (e.g., “Your morning cup enables this farmer to send his children to school every day…”).
Although this scenario is basically true, it is also true that certifications cost money in the form of increased bureaucracy and paperwork. The certifiers and the inspectors are also taking a cut of the increase to pay for their services to the fair trade chain. The same is true of organic, bird-friendly, rainforest, and all the other certifications (see image).
What this means is that although the certifications start out with a particular goal in mind—whether it’s higher wages for the grower, a more natural or a shade-grown product, or a farm that encourages migratory birds to settle in—they inevitably become bloated entities that need to justify their own existence. Rather than serving a particular need for a short time and moving on to something else, the certifying organizations set up camp and become a permanent part of the coffee supply chain. Over time, the certifiers end up requiring more and more money and the price has to keep rising. The farmer gets the promised price, but his cost to be a part of the certifying process is continually increasing. His take-home profit is actually decreasing year after year. What started out as a feel-good story ends up right back where it began: the farmer having a hard time pulling a living wage from his crop. More money is changing hands, but the supply chain is now longer and more complex and much more expensive.
This tendency is true of all the major certifiers; in fact, it is true of all bureaucracy. Paperwork and certifications do not make money, they create cost. This is why we’re not particularly fond of “cause” coffees. We are more attracted to “direct trade” coffees; coffees that help to decrease the amount of bureaucracy and red-tape and shorten the supply chain. Direct trade seeks to foster deeper relationships between the growers and the roasters so that roasters can get more of what they want and growers can get more of what they need. Customers are better served in this way because roasters want to supply more of what sells, as well as giving their customers more information about the “who,” “what,” “when,” and “wheres” that went into their daily cup of coffee. It is truly a win-win for everyone involved.