I love coffee. I love drinking it, making it, smelling it, learning about it . . .I love everything about it. I’m fascinated by the mystery of coffee, the many different stages of production that go into producing a perfect cup of the good stuff. I was blown away when I encountered fresh coffee beans right off the tree for the first time, and I continue to be amazed by the complexities of blending and roasting, let alone the underrated art of the barista. Coffee really is a drink full of love and I think we all too easily take it for granted in this country now, mixing it willy-nilly into huge, watery or milky tasteless buckets of drink.
OK – rant over. Everyone is entitled to drink their coffee however they like it most. BUT – all these facets of coffee, and the huge market for it these days, combine to make it one of the most mis-understood industries (in my humble opinion and ample experience standing behind the counter of a cafe). It is also a prime location for ethical befuddlement and guilt.
So this really isn’t a blog about just coffee, it’s a blog about ethical labelling and standards.
As good a place to start as any – what is ‘Fairtrade’? According to their website, Fairtrade standards are about ‘better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade’. The basic idea is that a price is fixed for purchasers based on local consultation as to the appropriate price for meeting these standards in production. Key value is placed on wages and benefits for workers, as well as a sustainable attitude and good local relationships. The price that is set should be a starting point, the minimum acceptable to be paid to the producer and as such is a good thing to know as a consumer, it also stipulates longer-term agreements between producers and purchasers, giving security to small farmers. However, if the market price is higher than the Fairtrade price the market price becomes the minimum.
This is good – in principle. Certainly better than nothing, but there are problems. Firstly, the Fairtrade stamp on a product does not mean the whole product is made with Fairtrade certified ingredients. Moreover, with market prices rising and fluctuating as much as they have recently (due to drought, bad harvest and commodity trading – see my earlier post on this) market prices are rendering Fairtrade difficult to monitor at best, obsolete at worst. Fairtrade agreements also only stipulate benefits for those directly involved in coffee production, not necessarily seeing these filter into the wider community. Furthermore, the certification process can be restrictive, particularly in an industry like coffee where you often find blends of different beans and where there is a market for rare or new flavours and beans.
So Fairtrade is not all-encompassing. What else is out there?
Rainforest Alliance is a popular one for coffee sellers. This is a similar accreditation to Fairtrade but it has a wider focus, with a fairly strict set of ecological and environmental requirements relating to fertilizers and chemicals, water sources and contamination, forestry and wildlife. Like Fairtraide it stipulates sustainable wages, as well as relevant benefits and social standards for workers. Like Fairtrade it is not all encompassing. RA is acreddited through the Sustainable Agriculture Network, and if you look at their website you’ll find there are a number of other similar initiatives, many of them originating in tropical countries where most small farmers are based. Various other organisations including the ILO and the have regulated on these issues, and set up projects or consultations. This is certainly not straightforward, and as a consumer is liable to become even more of a headache in the future.
Finally, it’s important to remember that these certifications are often something of a PR stunt. Consumers want to know they’re getting an ethical product so it suits sellers to give them that, but the Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance stamp does little to tell us about a companies other business credentials. Take Starbucks for example; they now trump their ‘ethical’ and Fairtrade credentials in the UK, but don’t serve Fairtrade coffee as standard in the US although they do ‘certify’ much of their coffee through another organisation and have contributed to Fairtrade projects. On top of this, despite their publicity of community support and projects, they have been reported to be anti-union across their stores. It’s a bit tricky to know what you’re really getting. Starbucks know that to keep their customers they have to certify their coffee, and they have to talk about it. There are other companies that do this too. There is a small UK company I have worked with called Kingdom Coffee who, as well as selling some Fairtrade and RA certified roasts, have their own ‘ethical’ standard which allows them to buy rarer beans direct from growers in a wide range of countries. They belive this is ‘better’ than Fairtrade, because as well as offering good prices and demanding social responsibility from their producers, they also invest through established charities a portion from every case of beans they sell into community projects in the areas their coffee is grown, such as work with street children. This picks up the deficit of Fairtrade by supporting the whole community which will in turn increase productivity and living standards for all, and they even believe in the importance of their ‘ethical’ standard so much they apply it to Fairtrade beans they purchase on top of the certified requirements, calling it Fairtrade Plus.
There are plenty of other companies working to their own high standards and creating beautifully tasting, responsible coffee. There are plenty serving Fairtrade or RA products but not upholding those ethical values elsewhere; does your milk come from factory farmed cows or the eggs used to make your cake from battery farmed hens (probably not you’re favourite things if you’re already looking for a fairtrade coffee).
As a consumer it’s never easy to know, and to an extent we must all make our decisions in good faith and of course I would encourage you to try new coffees. The key to this is, as it seems with all questions of food ethics, knowledge. This is the way we can manouvre real accountability into the coffee (and tea) marketplace. The best place to be sure of what you’re getting is from a small, artisan coffee shop and – even if the prices can be higher – I assure you you’ll get a much tastier cup of coffee. These are usually the cafes who value their staff most, and try to uphold their ethical values (if they say they have them) across all their products. Either way, there’s no harm in asking or doing a little bit of research but I will say – the Fairtrade symbol isn’t everything. If you’re looking for a coffee to drink at home, whether you use instant, french press or espresso, I’d highly recommend Cafe Direct. Their coffee is delicious (they also do great tea), their credentials are spot on and it won’t cost you the earth – check out the website for more info.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Sheik Abd-al-Kadir (whoever he is)
“No one can understand the truth until he drinks of coffee’s frothy goodness”