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Sipping coffee can be leisurely and delightful, but growing coffee is an entirely different story. After a laborious season of growing, coffee cherries are handpicked by farmers in notoriously precarious conditions. Coffee plants thrive on hilly mountainsides where sunlight is abundant, so pickers are not only exposed to the harsh sun but may also have to contend with venomous snakes and biting insects, which often take refuge under the tree shade.
Despite these challenges, coffee pickers oftentimes aren’t compensated fairly, earning as little as 15 cents for every kilogram of coffee beans they collect in places like Colombia, according to this BBC report.
And cherry-picking is only one aspect of the process from seed to bag of beans. Clearly, there’s much unseen labor that goes into the daily grind we consume—but what can we as consumers do to help improve the conditions for workers? Well, fair and direct trade coffee are a good place to start.
What is fair trade coffee?
In short, coffee with a fair trade certification means that the seller acquired the coffee beans at a higher-than-market-rate price from coffee growers. The certification process is run by Fairtrade International (FLO for short) but a number of competing fair trade certification schemes have emerged, including Fair Trade USA and Rainforest Alliance.
The history of the fair trade coffee movement can be traced back to the 80s, when a glut of coffee beans on the global market caused the price to tumble. The goal of a fair trade certification is to artificially increase the commodity price of coffee in order to ensure that growers can turn a profit from producing the coffee.
Today, the fair trade movement has expanded from solely ensuring that farmers receive a fair price to also requiring minimum labor protection standards and sustainability targets.
Shopping for fair trade–certified coffee is a step in the right direction. However, this certification isn’t without criticisms, such as this investigation from 2006, which suggested that some fair trade–certified coffee was produced with lax ethical standards.
Consumers may have to take a leap of faith, as I’ve found some fair trade–certified coffee lacking in information about its origins and processing methods. So, are there other coffee categories that maximize transparency?
What is single origin coffee?
The definition of single origin coffee can vary from one brand to another. But generally speaking, the term refers to the coffee beans that were harvested in one geographic location and sold to consumers by small-to-medium businesses via direct trade practice. Counter Culture, our top pick for coffee subscriptions, is a good example of direct trade business.
Coffees that are branded as single-origin have implied transparency in terms of how the commodities changed hands. With geographical tagging, consumers have the option to trace the source of the coffee, sometimes down to the exact farm, estate, or even microlots, as a way to hold coffee producers and traders accountable.
However, the downside of single-origin coffee is the price. As more money goes into operation costs (some coffee cultivars are prone to rust, fungus infection, and other diseases in tropical climate), sourcing, and paying a fair wage to the farmworkers, single-origin beans simply can’t compete with beans sold by large corporations that are able to maximize on the economies of scale. But it shouldn’t negate the importance of supporting these small coffee producers.
What can I do to help?
Start small by buying coffee with a fair trade label, which is typically located at one of the bottom corners on the bag’s front. Or, if you’re a specialty coffee drinker and are ready to nerd out about the exact cultivar, specialty coffee brands like Counter Culture, Intelligentsia, and Driftaway are great choices for single-origin brands.
Another way to shop is to look for coffee cooperatives, which operate like non-profit organizations by pooling resources from a group of individual coffee growers. After each harvest, one co-op collectively bargains for the price of their coffee as a whole. Pachamama, a coffee subscription we tested and liked, is one of them. This farmer-owned cooperative is well-known in the specialty coffee world for its expansive selection of coffees from the rare Ethiopian Yirgacheffe to the low-yielding heirloom Bourbon.
Enjoy your coffee!
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.