Fair Trade Coffee

By Ben Myers

As part of an on-going blog series exploring different terms both used and misused in the coffee lexicon, this week we are going to take a look at Fair Trade.



In 1838, a restless yet otherwise well-regarded Dutch teenager by the name of Eduard Douwes Dekker traveled to Java. For just short of 20 years, Dekker grew into manhood living and working in Indonesia. Dekker earned the respect of his colleagues and was promoted to a member of the East Indian Civil Service. In 1856, three months after establishing placement in Lebak, Dekker's life changed. He had crossed a tipping point and decided he could no longer silently stand by the exploitation of the native Javanese coffee farmers by his countrymen. For challenging what was then the status quo, Dekker was relieved from his post. He returned to Europe where for three long years he wandered as a poverty stricken writer under the pseudonym Multatuli. 

The story of Eduard Douwes Dekker's transformation into Multatuli is part of coffee's great pantheon of origin myths. Some 150 years later, Multatuli's most famous piece of writing Max Havelaar stands as a vivid recreation of how a otherwise flawed idealist stood up to protect the Javanese from cruelty against his own countrymen. What was written as a fictional biographical remembrance is today seen as the founding document of the Fair Trade movement. For the first time, the world took a different viewpoint on how certain colonial practices when imposed upon indigenous peoples to deliver goods without awareness their own needs could reduce those living upon highly fertile soil to starvation. 

Max Havelaar    (Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company)

Max Havelaar (Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company)

From its onset, Fair Trade has been about helping end exploitation. 

It is an interest, whether we be cognizant or not, which impacts everyone's wellbeing. In 1988, when Fair Trade certification was formally introduced to the world, it aimed to raise the prices of coffee to ensure growers received sufficient wages. In other words, aimed to make coffee farming a viable profession. Over the years, the mission has grown to support producers gain better market access, access more credit from financial institutions, and develop resources to help further community development projects. To this day, Fair Trade remains steadfast in its efforts to promote consumer education and industry wide awareness building. Fair Trade is not only the price being paid to coffee farmers; it's about organizing a comprehensive and coherent global strategy for sustainable development.

In recent years, Fair Trade has begun experiencing an identity crisis in the coffee commons. Journalists, academics, and industry professionals have debated at length Fair Trade's true value and the industry has become increasingly critical of the ‘Fair Trade’ strategy’s impact on the poor. As a result, over the last five years, a growing number of roasters in the United States and other affluent nations have selected to market with alternative marketing manifestos over the certified Fair Trade labelAs the quality first division of specialty coffee continues its rapid ascension, there is growing trend of artisan roasters and cafes selecting not to invest their coffee dollars in support of the Fair Trade certification the way they once did. Simply put, these days Fair Trade is not seen as a cup quality enhancer for coffee. Rather, it is viewed more as a charitable effort with questionable impact on the working poor. More and more, roasters today are advocating a philosophy that the best way to support true sustainable development for coffee producers is to raise value not through an artificial mechanism, but based on pure cup quality.   

As the value of Fair Trade lingers in debate and question, a new era of coffee has slipped off the runway and taken flight. This new era of self-described direct Traders is moving from infancy to a more self-reflective adolescence. In taking time to self-reflect, it becomes increasingly evident that with coffee (as with all things) that the truth of matter is that relativity and subjectivity will always negate that which we desire to position as objective capital 'T" truth. Everything depends on the situation and gross blanket catch phrases are little fingers pointing to a holographic moon. Still, it is important for all participants in the coffee trade, whether consumer of producer to take stock in understanding the promises and perils of Fair Trade coffee in order to responsibly steward a new era in coffee sourcing.

Over the years I have been prone to a remark that Fair Trade has value similar to that of section eight housing. 

It is extremely important for dire straits but not the pinnacle that we collectively should be aspiring towards. For 1000 Faces Coffee, while we do not purchase coffee in order to utilize the Fair Trade certification we often purchase coffee from cooperatives that are certified as being Fair Trade cooperatives. Our mission statement has always been centered on a philosophy of direct trade and we have made it our company’s work to take part in developing this sector of the coffee industry. The coffee industry is massive and can be divided into many different sectors, and thus it is a good truism to remember that not all coffees are created equally though each can be shown respect by discovering new ways to add value. Most Fair Trade certified coffees do not capture the cup quality we are looking for. We find that by working directly with individual producers and producer programs we can work together to create better cups of coffee and in return the coffee producers we have selected to work with get a better return on their investment into the quality of their coffee production. When cherry selection is prioritized at the farm level, workers need to be paid more since it is simply harder work to be more selective. It is our preference to work with individual coffee farms so as to highlight an individual producer's work.

The legacy of Fair Trade is important to us; we hold the value of creating a just and equitable cup near and dear to our hearts. 

We acknowledge that inequities persist in the coffee producing regions and in the right circumstances Fair Trade does a good job at trying to address these. The true value of Fair Trade for us is the legacy; the fact that it was a turning point in self-reflection as to how practice was being made real. We ensure that our coffee dollars are not going to fund such imbalance by cultivating direct relationships with our growing partners at the farm level. If there is one thing we have learned in eight years of meeting with coffee producers at the farm, it is that we could never develop from afar a mechanized system of care that would replace the intensive care with which they manage their immediate ecosystem. And so it is our choice to put our coffee dollars as directly in the hands of the producers we work with as possible. We do not currently recognize Fair Trade as being the penultimate mechanism for improving the lives of the working poor in coffee, nor are we here to boast that we have reached a penultimate point in our own developmental sourcing schematic. Though we are working on it, rest assured. We also believe that 'direct trade' in the wrong hands could be much more manipulative than Fair Trade in the wrong hands. Massive corporations have already begun to buy the rights to the early pioneers’ scribes, adjusting the ledgers to fit their blood-thirsty eyes. While we may not be supporting the Fair Trade certification process through our purchasing decisions, we are supporters of capacity building work with cooperative groups around the world by being active in the industry. The words of Multatuli do not fall deaf upon our ears; we trust that he would approve of our approach to sourcing coffee for our roasting operation.

Indonesians have a saying about their islands: Go to Bali for vacation, go to Sumatra for adventure, and go to Java to build your empire. 

In a crowded traffic jam just outside of Jakarta, I recall feeling engulfed by an endless sea of broken down shanty shops in a twisted cacophony. Everywhere is the phlegm of motorcycle exhaust and factory made forgotten hope. Discomfort nestles its way under my skin like ants dancing inside a candy store. There is something still beautiful about the unregulated other; the rare, the sick, the kinky, the exotic, and it's something that takes no careful managers to orchestrate from above. It is released from below. The whip that Multatuli drew back might just be beginning to crack.