Everyone’s doing “premium coffee” these days. In fact, typing those two words into Google yields more than 1.3 billion results.
In quality terms, it’s hard to know what “premium coffee” even means – after all, everyone from Starbucks to Speedway makes the claim – but any smart consumer knows when they’re paying a premium for their beans.
So the question is, what justifies that premium? Is it all about expensive marketing and fancy packaging, or is there some real, underlying value?
In the case of Fair Trade, the answer is pretty clear cut.
Putting a Premium on Progress
Fair Trade is a multifaceted approach to dealing with the humanitarian, environmental, and transparency issues floating in your cup — and in a variety of other industries, from foodstuffs to handcrafts.
Fair Trade products carry a slightly higher price point – usually around 15%, according to Fairtrade International, one of the major certifying groups – but there are two important things to know about that premium.
First, the initial importer pays the premium, regardless of final retail sales. Though some front-end costs are passed on to consumers, your purchase does not determine whether farmers get paid fairly. That’s taken care of already, so the retail sale is helping an importer stay in business and buy the farmer’s next bag of beans – paying it forward, so to speak.
Secondly, premiums are important because they assist in community development projects chosen by the farmers or artisans. This isn’t charity or mission work, where well-meaning outsiders determine what a community might need.
Instead, Fair Trade is about paying fair prices so producers have greater autonomy and agency. A Fair Trade purchase allows investments in children’s education, jobs for women and socially disadvantaged communities, and better stewardship of the planet – driven by the stakeholders themselves.
If that all sounds sweeping and ambitious, here are three examples of what it looks like on the ground.
A Future for Female Farmers
Women make up the main workforce in most of the fieldwork and processing involved in coffee production. They’re also capable of trading and exporting coffee of their own, but too often, they’re marginalized due to ingrown sexist bias. Lack of access to training and finance affects their ability to produce superior beans, causing them to lose market share.
Rwanda’s Gashonga Cooperative proves it doesn’t have to be that way. The 104-member group uses profits and premiums to implement programs benefitting female farmers long-term, like healthcare and income diversification.
There’s also a collective-within-the-collective: Women farmers whose husbands were killed in the Rwandan genocide of ’94 look out for each other, purchasing household items like beds or books for their kids. (To meet some of these amazing women, check out the beautiful photo essay by Ilene Perlman.)
The cooperative works rigorously to ensure you’re not making a pity purchase: their coffee is famed for its balanced, complex flavor and superior quality. Coffee geeks will be pleased to note their beans garnered a score of 86.7 out of 100 in Rwanda’s Cup of Excellence, establishing a reputation for growing one of the best coffees in the world.
A Place in the Sun … er, Shade
The ladies of Gashonga Cooperative aren’t the only ones in Fair Trade who have leveled up their coffee quality. Producing a cup of sensory excellence is no easy task, however- especially in light of Fair Trade’s environmental stance, which severely limits agrochemical use and encourages organic farming.
Small farmers feel constant financial pressure, and too often that pressure leads them to adopt tools and techniques that can boost yields — pesticides, clear-cutting, and single-crop planting. But it turns out that’s not good for the coffee or the environment, according to Equal Exchange, an organic importer that curates premium coffees grown by cooperatives worldwide.
Most specialty coffees are made from Arabica beans, which are preferred widely for their mellower flavor. Arabica coffee trees produce the best tasting beans when growing in part shade. That’s a lifesaver for chemical-conscious farmers who don’t want to use herbicides to keep weeds down.
Using a method called agroforestry, they plant their coffee among other trees to preserve an ecosystem that naturally keeps the undesirables out- while providing extra food or income for the farming family in the process, helping to break the cycle of poverty.
Fair Trade certification can help to relieve financial pressure, because the standards strongly encourage environmentally friendly farming techniques like agroforestry. Rather than maximizing short-term yields, the Fair Trade premium can act as an incentive for farmers who wish to manage their lands for future generations.
Looking out for Kids
Whether it’s primary school or college, the developing world is infamous for limited educational opportunities, but purchasing Fair Trade is good for all community members, down to the smallest.
To get an idea of how Fair Trade helps kids, we spoke with Stacey Towes, co-founder of Level Ground Trading. Level Ground’s coffee connects us to farm kids from rural Colombia, who face a variety of challenges every school day. To help mitigate, they founded Famicafe.
Funded by coffee premiums, Famicafe provides students, including children of refugees from nearby Venezuela, with scholarships and school supplies. They also maintain roads and other infrastructure in the area so children, some walking up to an hour each way, can get to school.
Making educational opportunities available is an important step in stamping out poverty, which is central to Level Ground’s mission. But you can’t do that without considering the very engine of the world — those who grow our food.
“A small farm is the original ‘little business’ which has potential to drive a national economy,” Stacey told us. “The purpose of our business is a more robust and just economy for rural, small-scale farmers…When our purchases support small-scale farmers, we are supporting families who comprise networks / coops which in turn are the fabric of vibrant rural economies which steward the land and feed the planet.”
A Final Word
As conscious consumers, we’re trying to make the wisest use of our money in uncertain times.
While many ethical brands make a big splash in supporting women and children, protecting the planet, or creating jobs in developing communities, it’s not always possible to cover all areas of concern in a single purchase. But like the indispensable Swiss Army Knife, the Fair Trade model covers a little bit of everything in its efforts to do good.
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Mai Zahrat is an ethical copywriter disillusioned with ‘big business’. When not advocating for Fair Trade and transparent business practices, she spends her time reading, tinkering and hiking in the woods of upstate New York. Follow her work @maizahrat, or on her website: maizahratcopywriting.com.
All photos copyright Ilene Perlman, who donates 50% of royalties to the women of Gashonga.