For many it’s a magical elixir, better than a sprint around the block or an ice-cold shower to get them going in the morning (or to keep them going late at night). Coffee has been used as a steamy pick-me-up for over one-thousand years, its popularity spanning the globe.
Coffee beans were first roasted and brewed in Arabia around 1000 B.C.E., though tales of raw bean-eating pre-date the advent of the modern coffee concept. From the time the first java shop opened its doors in Constantinople in 1475 to the current era of coffeehouse abundance, coffee aficionados gradually spread their palatal wings.
Today, a consumer can walk into a coffee shop and choose from seemingly endless options for satisfying the java jones. Espresso shots, café lattes, and cappuccinos are among the most well known incarnations of the brewed bean beverage. Of course, many folks like their drinks a little fancier (read: sweeter). Add a bit of chocolate and your cappuccino becomes a mochachino. Throw in a splash of caramel and your latte becomes a caramel macchiato.
In recent years, however, a different sort of novelty coffee has gained increasing popularity among American consumers. This variation on the traditional brew has nothing to do with sweet add-ins or frothy milk mixers. As coffee lovers become more aware of the roads their beloved beans travel on the way to American auto-drips and percolators, more and more are demanding the coffee they consume be produced under fair working conditions.
Coffee is the number-one food import into the United States. The coffee brought into the States originates primarily in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, and Vietnam, and the wages coffee producers receive often is not enough for them to sustain their families without going into debt. So how do concerned sippers satisfy their consciences as well as their taste buds? One way is to purchase coffee that is Fair Trade-certified.
Proponents of the Fair Trade movement work to reconcile economic globalization and ethical market practices. In order to be sold as Fair Trade, a product must meet certain standards laid out by organizations such as Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO).
Transfair USA, one of twenty FLO members, is an independent, third party certifier, similar to organic certifiers such as Quality Assurance International or California Certified Organic Farmers. In the United States, Transfair USA helps ensure that goods sold under the Fair Trade label meet FLO standards.
Fair Trade standards require that farmers receive fair wholesale prices for their crops. This currently translates to a price of about $1.26 per pound of raw beans in a market that can shell out as little as $.60 per pound.
The Fair Trade movement traces its roots to the Alternative Trade Organizations, or ATOs, of 1940s Europe and North America. These groups were founded by church activists seeking financial relief for struggling refugees.
Certification for Fair Trade goods began in the Netherlands. During the late 1980s, when coffee prices experienced a sharp drop, the Max Havelaar label came into being. The label was named for a fictional Dutch character who was opposed to the exploitation of coffee pickers in Dutch colonies, and sparked the development of Fair Trade certification criteria.
Transfair USA, which has been selling Fair Trade certified coffee since 1999, reports that the product now represents the fastest-growing specialty coffee market in the United States. This is evident, as well, by the growing number of American coffeehouses and retail shops offering Fair Trade concoctions.
Expect to see Fair Trade options increase in the near future. As awareness increases and more and more restaurants and retailers recognize the growing trend, Fair Trade coffee is likely to continue its rapid rise in the specialty java market. There is much to learn about purchasing Fair Trade goods and Fair Trade Month (October 2007), and the FLO’s certification criteria.