Twenty years ago, a lot of coffee drinkers hadn’t heard of Fair Trade and often confused it with Free Trade. At that time, Signature Coffee had already been buying Fair Trade coffees because it was the right thing to do. But we couldn’t tell anyone about it or put the Fair Trade seal on our packaging. Although we paid the minimum price per pound mandated under FT standards, we had to pay an additional fee per pound to Fair Trade USA, the certifying agency to be “certified’. These additional funds did not go to the farmer but instead were used for overhead, advertising, and managing the certification process. Because this was such a new concept to coffee drinkers, a lot of that money went toward advertising to raise awareness. So, why didn’t we register Signature Coffee with Fair Trade and become certified at that time? The primary reason was that we didn’t resonate with their advertising message. Back then, they were using negative marketing to get their point across with ads such as "If you’re not drinking fair trade coffee, you’re drinking the blood of the farmers". That didn’t align with our peace, love, and respect culture, so we just continued to pay the Fair Trade premium without the bragging rights. But in 2003 I was invited on the first Women in Coffee trip to Nicaragua, and that changed everything.
HOW A TRIP TO NICARAGUA CONVINCED ME TO BECOME FAIR TRADE CERTIFIED
Over three days, women from North America and Nicaragua connected in partnership and discussed ways to make a difference through coffee. Our group saw firsthand how a small family farmer cooperative can produce excellent quality coffee and improve their lives on so many levels.
We spent two days traveling high in the remote mountains of northern Nicaragua. This involved rustic back roads, driving through rocky riverbeds, and crossing footpaths to visit small individual farms. These farmers live in very remote areas growing some of the best coffees in the world. These farmers work very hard and live very simply. There are no frills in their life. On a trip to one of their outhouses, I noticed sheets of newspapers hanging from a hook in the ceiling. On the floor was a new 4-pack of toilet paper, which I assumed was special for us gringas. These proud farmers, 30% who are women, don’t want a handout, they just want a fair price for their coffee. Not only does Fair Trade guarantee that fair price, but it gives them a chance to join a democratically run cooperative that sells their coffee for them. Without the cooperatives, they would be at the mercy of coyotes who would cheat them out of a fair price.
In Nicaragua, women weren’t allowed to ride on top of
buses, but our group had our own bus so we made our own rules!
We got a chance to pick coffee cherries on one of the farms we visited. It's really hard work!
Our last day was spent at SOPPEXCCA cooperative’s headquarters located in Jinotega. We got an intense lesson in Fair Trade cooperatives and how they function to benefit their members, consisting of 450 farmers organized into 12 different communities. The most important criteria to maintain Fair Trade status is that the cooperative must be democratically run. Each member has a voice. We got an in-depth explanation of the cooperative’s structure which includes the General Assembly, the Board of Directors, the Board Oversight Committee, and the 12 Community cooperatives with their own Board of Directors. After ‘class’, we toured their Receiving Center to see the receiving process, and the quality control systems in place. Then, our group continued to the cupping lab for a cupping of four different coffee lots. And that was all before lunch.
After lunch, we gathered with the women members to hear their stories and learn more about their lives. They shared what they had been able to achieve being a part of SOPPEXCCA since it was established four years prior. The Fair Trade premiums allowed them to send their children to school, to get basic medical care, and to feed their families through the thin months.
Toward the end of the day, we took a break to play a game called "Conejo a su Conejera" or Rabbit to your Rabbit Hole. I can’t remember the rules, but the moral of the game was how working together brings better results than working alone. We laughed a lot and felt an even closer bond with these women who grow such beautiful coffee. Earlier, I had asked how we, as women coffee businesses in the US could help them. One proud woman stood up and said “just buy our coffee”. So, we did. Between us, our group bought a container (198 bags at 155 pounds each) of their Fair Trade coffee as the first step to formalizing a working relationship with the women of SOPPEXCCA.
My main takeaway was how synergistic this all was. Fair Trade wasn’t just about getting a fair price, but about belonging to a cooperative who could provide advanced benefits and services that wouldn’t be available to them otherwise. The cooperatives not only sell the farmer’s coffee for them, but provide financing, enforce gender equality, help build cupping labs for quality control, and provide agronomists to help them with transitioning to organic certification. And the beautiful part is that they each have a voice in it all.
PS - So yep, this trip made me realize that we wanted the bragging rights and the ability to share how powerful Fair Trade really is. I called Fair Trade USA from the San Francisco airport as soon as I landed back in the States to start the certification process.
HISTORY OF FAIR TRADE
Fair trade coffee emerged in the late 1980s as a response to the exploitation of coffee farmers in developing countries. Many small-scale farmers were being paid unfairly low prices for their coffee, which led to poverty and unsustainable farming practices. In 1988, the first fair trade certification was established by a Dutch organization called Max Havelaar. Since then, fair trade coffee has gained popularity worldwide and has become a symbol of ethical consumerism.
BENEFITS TO THE FARMERS
One of the primary benefits of Fair Trade coffee is that it ensures farmers receive a fair price for their coffee beans. Fair trade certification guarantees a minimum price that covers the cost of sustainable production, allowing farmers to invest in their farms and communities. This stability helps lift farmers out of poverty and provides them with a more sustainable livelihood. Additionally, fair trade coffee promotes better working conditions for farmers. It prohibits child labor and ensures that farmers have access to safe working environments. Fair Trade organizations also provide training and support to farmers, helping them improve their farming techniques and increase their productivity.
BENEFITS TO THE ENVIRONMENT
Fair trade coffee significantly benefits the environment by requiring the farmers to follow strict environmental standards. These standards promote sustainable farming practices, such as organic farming, reducing the use of harmful pesticides and fertilizers. Furthermore, fair trade encourages the conservation of natural resources. Farmers are encouraged to use water efficiently, reduce waste, and implement renewable energy sources. These practices help mitigate the environmental impact of coffee production and contribute to a more sustainable future. By supporting Fair Trade coffee, you contribute to the preservation of biodiversity and the protection of ecosystems.
Fair Trade coffee matters because it addresses the injustices faced by coffee farmers and promotes sustainable farming practices. By choosing Fair Trade coffee, you can make a positive impact on the lives of farmers and the environment. So consider opting for fair trade and support a more equitable and sustainable coffee industry. Feel good about the coffee you drink.
With peace, love and respect,