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The power in your coffee cup

Matt has a good post about Blue State Coffee, a purveyor on Thayer Street of Fair Trade coffee. This reminded me of a piece I did a few years back on the power of consumers to make change with their coffee-buying decisions:

CAN A CUP of coffee change the world?

For embattled small-scale farmers like 28-year-old Carlos Reynoso, whose colleagues cultivate coffee beans in the western highlands of Guatemala, the daily choices of US consumers have a big impact. When most people in the US buy a $3 latte, a cup of java on the go, or a bag of beans at the supermarket, they unsuspectingly support a status quo in which poor growers in Latin America, Asia, and Africa receive as little as 20 or 25 cents for a pound of high-grade coffee. But when consumers buy Fair Trade coffee — which guarantees farmers a minimum price of $1.26 per pound — their spending fosters a variety of positive effects, not the least of which is the ability of these growers to sustain their livelihoods.

As one of six employees of Manos Campesinas, a collective that coordinates coffee exports for more than a thousand small growers, Reynoso has personally seen the impact. Since global coffee prices began plummeting a few years ago, many farmers have been unable to earn enough to support themselves, causing them to abandon the land and search elsewhere for work. Since Manos Campesinas became Fair Trade–certified in 1999, however, the heightened revenue stream has raised the income of farmers, he says, enabling their families to enjoy a better diet and their children to remain in school.

Speaking through a translator during a telephone interview arranged by the nonprofit development agency Oxfam America, Reynoso notes that Fair Trade isn’t a panacea for poverty. It does, however, offer some substantial big-picture benefits in a country fair like Guatemala, which suffered from decades of violence and anti-union activity after a US-backed coup in 1954. "Now people are realizing there are benefits to organization, and that if they can work together, they can achieve greater things," Reynoso says. There’s still not sufficient demand to sell all of the collective’s coffee through Fair Trade channels, he adds, "[But] the more that consumers get to know what Fair Trade means, the more possibilities we will have."

Although Fair Trade–certified coffee has been available in the US since only 1986, it is rapidly growing in popularity. TransFair USA, an Oakland, California–based nonprofit that monitors the product, announced this spring that it certified 18.7 million pounds in 2003 — a 91 percent jump from 2002. Equal Exchange, a Canton, Massachusetts-based cooperative (soon moving to West Bridgewater) that bills itself as the nation’s leading Fair Trade company, has enjoyed enviable growth, topping $10 million in sales and gaining recognition as one of the fastest-growing small firms in the region. Furthermore, although Fair Trade coffee represents only about one percent of the 2.8 billion pounds of coffee imported into the US in 2003 — aiding just a small fraction of the world’s 25 million coffee farmers — industry giants like Procter & Gamble, Starbucks, and Dunkin’ Donuts have slowly begun to include Fair Trade offerings among their offerings.

It’s not hard to see why proponents tend to embrace Fair Trade java with something approaching evangelical zeal. Perhaps like no other product, a cup of this coffee holds the promise of empowering consumers as a force for global good, offering at least a potential counterbalance to unmitigated corporate consolidation and the exploitation of workers in undeveloped nations. With the spread of the Fair Trade approach to other products in recent years, including chocolate, cocoa, tea, bananas, mangoes, pineapples, and grapes, the prospects seem even greater.

For conscientious coffee mavens like Rik Kleinfeldt, the owner of New Harvest Coffee Roasters, in Rumford, emphasizing Fair Trade beans comes down to doing the right thing. As New Harvest states on its Web site, www.newharvestcoffee.com, "Over the last 200 years, less and less money has gone to the people who actually make things, and more and more wealth has flowed into the coffers of people with soft hands and no shame. The coffee industry is no exception. The people who do the hardest work in making your morning cup possible, the farmers, have long received the smallest share of the proceeds. We want to do all that we can to reverse this reality."

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