Estimated to be a $48 million dollar retail industry in the U.S. alone, coffee can easily be defined as a sought after commodity and it hasn’t even reached its peak.

History has steadily brought us to our coffee consuming culture today but what else goes in our cup beyond the pit of a cherry grown on a shrub?

Sadly, the history of coffee beginning in the 15-1600’s is marked with slavery, exploitation, and violence. What it worse is that it has not ended today. Coffee is an industry that is easily to take advantage of because it is grown in countries that tend to be more vulnerable. The people need jobs and will do anything to make a little money, even if it is not enough to live. As well as, because it is a growing industry many people will grow it at the expense of the environment.

To preface, coffee has two main species, arabica and robusta. Robusta is a cheaper brand, easier to grow, generally used for instant coffee. Arabica is a nicer coffee but only grows at higher elevation. As coffee consumption has grown, less and less coffee is ‘shade grown’ (having other species of trees covering the plants). Shade grown coffee is better tasting but much better for the environment. Many trees have been cut down expand the land available for coffee growth creating monoculture environment, eliminating biodiversity, and ruining the soil. This happens more with robusta because its ease of growth and lack of quality control. However, less and less arabica is shade grown as well.

So what about the people producing? Unfortunately this story is worse than that of the environment. On average, coffee farmers are only paid 5-10% of the final retail price of coffee. So when you spend $4 on a hipster coffee less than $0.40 makes it to the farmer who produced it. Part of this is the steep increase of value of coffee when it is roasted, but that also doesn’t account for that great of a difference. Also, if the farmer is only making $0.40, that leaves very little room for the farmer to pay the pickers he hires. Coffee pickers are generally the ‘poorest of the poor’ making well under minimum wage. You could try and argue that it is the coffee farmers fault, not the company…but if the company is not paying the farmer enough to pay his pickers then they need to be held responsible. Not to mention, if a company is declaring that they are protecting human rights and making sustainable coffee than they should also be looking at the status of all their workers, even all the way down to the bottom.

This is where fair trade gets muddy. WHAT? FAIR TRADE, MUDDY? Yes, I know, that is just messed up! It is not as transparent as it seems. Fair trade has the intention of being good, and can be good. Not all fair-trade is bad, but it certainly isn’t all good.

I’m sure you will see a longer post on this later but for now, fair trade has an initial cost of $3,000 to be certified (family farmers make a yearly income between $500-$1000). Next, fair trade doesn’t not trickle down. More specifically, if a farmer does end up making more money with their certification (which is not guaranteed) it is not likely they are making enough to also pay their pickers a higher price. Why isn’t it guaranteed that the farmer would make more? First, it takes a farmer a long time to pay off their certification fee and secondly, a lot of the generated income form higher price fair trade products actually goes towards marketing, advertising, and other fair trade corporation projects, not too the farmer.

Sadly, this is also the case for the Rainforest Alliance Certification, which has relatively no standards in regards to human rights and actually very low standards for environmental sustainability as well.

All this being said, fair trade (and other certifications) in some contexts can turn out good. But the label itself cannot be held trustworthy. So how can you easily purchase good coffee? Its actually not simple. Local coffee shops can generally be trusted, direct trade tends to be better than fair trade (also should be checked), and actually there are many non-profit and for-profit companies working to train farmers and pay them a better wage. A few examples will be listed below:

Aldea Coffee

Long Miles Coffee Project

Torch Coffee

Three Avocados


Socially Conscious Coffee

Sweet Maria’s

Uncommon Coffee Roasters

Written By: Katelynn Behrens