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Fair-trade coffee: Coming to a cafe near you

By Tamara Straus

HERE'S A breathtaking statistic: The $3 many Americans shell out every day for a latte at Starbucks is equivalent to the daily wage of a Central American coffee picker. Nonplussed? Here's another heart-stopper, specially designed for the nongourmet coffee drinker: Those $3.95 cans of Maxwell House and Folgers you pick up at your local supermarket, well, the beans that fill them are bought for around a quarter and come from corporate farms that use environmentally poisonous pesticides and clear-cut forests to produce the highest possible yields.

This may just serve as more fodder for those already sufficiently demoralized by the practices of big business. But what is interesting about such stats is they are being used to create a new American political animal: the ethical consumer.

True, the ethical consumer may pale in comparison to the do-gooders of old--the abolitionist, the suffragist, the fighter for civil rights or no nukes--since his primary act is figuring out how to ethically empty his wallet. Yet considering multinational corporations like Microsoft have annual revenues higher than the GNP of most countries --and deregulation in the United States is on the rise--ethical consumerism may be the best political weapon Americans have got.

Enter Fair-Trade Coffee

CONSIDER the example of fair-trade coffee, or "politically correct coffee," as Time magazine has dubbed it. Fair-trade coffee sells for a minimum of $1.29 per pound--which goes directly to coffee farmers, not to "coyotes," the middlemen who pay farmers usually no more than 35 cents a pound. It is grown on small farms, which tend to cultivate in the traditional way: under the rainforest canopy and without pesticides. And because fair-trade coffee has doubled farmers' annual incomes, more than 500,000 people in 20 developing nations are now living above the poverty line.

Nothing wrong with that. Indeed, those who hear about the benefits of fair-trade coffee tend to support it. The only problem is that a nationwide advertising campaign is needed to get the word out, and large coffee retailers--the ideal candidates for such an effort--will not do it, since buying coffee at fair trade prices would cut into their profits.

"Oh, it's the same old story again," you might say. "Good ideas, impossible to implement." But what is different about the fair-trade coffee campaign is that, thanks to a coalition of nonprofits, good ideas are being implemented using ethical consumerism as a bargaining chip.

Dutch Innovation

THE STORY of fair-trade coffee begins in 1988, in Holland, motherland of the international human rights movement. A group of fair traders selling coffee and other products at a crafts market decide to create a fair-trade seal--a label that will let customers know the product was bought at a decent price. They call the seal Max Havelaar after a bestselling 1860 book about the exploitation of Javanese coffee workers by Dutch merchants. In doing so, the traders remind their countrymen that coffee is a commodity tied to the history of colonialism.

In the same year, the Fairtrade Labeling Organization is founded, an umbrella institution for European certification organizations like Max Havelaar, which have begun to help coffee farmers create fair-trade cooperatives and connect them to retailers in the North. During the next decade, FLO's members draw a whopping half million farmers. The reason? Coffee farmers receive a tripled-per-pound price and FLO's arrangement eliminates their dependence on middlemen.

The farmers' end of the bargain is also relatively simple. In exchange for letting TransFair England, for example, inspect their farms and collect 10 cents per pound on coffee sold, coffee farmers get the right to use the fair-trade logo.

By 2000, FLO's efforts are a success. Fair-trade coffee cooperatives have spread from Guatemala to Indonesia, and the TransFair certification seal is found in 16 European countries as well as Japan and Canada. Worldwide, over 100 fair-trade coffee brands are sold in approximately 35,000 markets. Organic fair-trade coffee is also on the rise, as farmers are using their increased incomes to cultivate coffee without chemicals.

America the Late

Where were Americans during all this time? you might ask. Well, for one, wasting time over cups of joe. Americans consume an estimated one-fifth of all the coffee trade, making it the largest consumer in the world. Moreover, as anyone who lives near a Starbucks outlet knows, Americans have developed a yen for gourmet coffee, for cappuccinos and lattes and decaf mocha frappés.

This is the main reason Paul Rice, who worked with coffee farmers in Nicaragua for 11 years, founded a U.S wing of TransFair in the summer of 1999. "I just took the next logical step," says Rice. "In Nicaragua I saw fair-trade coffee cooperatives find markets in Europe, and I assumed the same could be true for the United States."

Rice started local. FairTrade USA's headquarters in Oakland meant it could take advantage of the San Francisco Bay Area's historic gourmet coffee tradition and liberal politics. Within four months, the Bay Area's reputation proved true: 12 local roasters signed up to sell fair-trade coffee. Today 35 fair-trade brands are available in 122 Bay Area supermarkets and cafes. The city councils of San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley also have passed resolutions to support the sale of fair-trade coffee.

Fair-Trade Frappaccinos?

BUT FAIR-TRADE coffee advocates' real coup did not come until April 2000, when Starbucks, which controls 20 percent of the U.S. specialty coffee industry, agreed to carry fair trade.

Of course, the agreement did not come without a fight. At first Starbucks refused to carry fair trade, explaining that until there was consumer demand it could not sell the politically correct bean in its 2,300 stores. But after being subject to a year long campaign organized by Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights organization--a campaign that eventually culminated in plans to stage protests at Starbucks in 29 cities--the retailer decided to avoid a public relations nightmare and sell the beans.

"Fair trade gets the benefit back to the family farmer," said Starbucks vice president David Olsen shortly after the decision was made. "It is consistent with our values."

Starbucks' decision to sell fair-trade coffee, however, does not mean the company will brew it in their stores. This will depend on "consumer demand," say Starbucks corporate heads. So, once again, this will mean that Global Exchange and other fair-trade coffee advocates will have to prove--through a combination of grassroots organizing, educational outreach, and threat of protest--that a demand exists.

Deborah James, fair-trade director of Global Exchange, says that consumer demand is not the chief problem. "Since fair trade became available at Starbucks in October," she says, "consumers have told us that they are buying it by the pound and that they want to see it as a 'coffee of the day,' something that Starbucks, it seems, will not do."

Alan Gulick, Starbucks' public affairs director, says the reason Starbucks does not serve fair trade as a daily brew is because "the volume of fair-trade coffee needed in not available." Yet, according to Nina Luttinger, communications manager of TransFair USA, there is evidence to the contrary. She reports that in 1999, of the 60 million pounds of fair-trade coffee produced globally, only half sold on the fair-trade market.

"This meant that farmers had to sell their product through the usual channels and got paid much less," says Luttinger, who doubts that the fair-trade coffee sale figures will be drastically different in 2000.

Is Fair Trade Just for Gourmands?

Still, Starbucks' introduction of fair-trade coffee is a victory for the movement. And the victory extends beyond the creator of the Frappaccino. During the 18 months fair-trade coffee has been available on the U.S. market, the number of retailers has grown from 400 to 7,000, according to Paul Rice. In November, Safeway, the supermarket king, launched fair-trade coffee in 1,500 of its stores nationwide--a decision Rice says came about not through threats of protest but through the supermarket's "enlightened self-interest."

"Companies are coming to me now," says Rice. "And some, such as Choice Organic Teas, have decided to eat the cost of buying fair trade rather than raise prices. They want to support fair trade, introduce it to their customers, and figure losing a few cents now is worth it."

But what about the big guns of the coffee industry: Nestlé's, Folgers, Maxwell House? "I think it's going to be a challenge to convince companies who are paying less than 50 cents and selling it for around $4 that they should pay $1.29," says James. "Fair-trade coffee successes so far have all been in the gourmet coffee industry."

This fact makes activists in the ethical consumer movement cringe. For it raises the question of how wide the movement can be. Will enough Americans care about labor conditions in the Third World and the environmental problems created there by American coffee corporations to force real change in the industry? Will they, as James has decided, "never voluntarily put someone in a situation of poverty, exploitation, and debt just to enjoy a cup of joe."

You may say no, but activists like Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, argues that Americans have little choice: "We have an obligation to the environment, we have an obligation to human rights, to drive unsustainable coffee off the market. We need to reach that point, like when it became socially unacceptable to buy products from South Africa because of apartheid."

The Fair-Trade Pitch

How fair-trade advocates will accomplish this sort of mass educational outreach depends on their mission and point of view. Rice, who works directly with coffee retailers, argues that the introduction of fair trade in the American gourmet coffee industry is having a domino affect. "Corporations realize they must meet the demands of their customers," says Rice. "And if their customers want fair trade, they provide it."

James, whose organization Global Exchange is focused on international social-justice issues, believes consumer knowledge about globalization is the key. She and her colleagues have tied coffee farmers' work conditions to the more familiar issue of sweatshop labor.

"We call nonfair-trade coffee 'sweatshop coffee' because many Americans know about sweatshop conditions in Asia and Mexico," she says. "They know the people who make Nike sneakers and Gap T-shirts are paid inadequate wages and work in unhealthy conditions."

Cummins, whose Organic Consumers Association is devoted largely to environ mental issues, also uses the term "sweatshop coffee" in its activist literature. But he also tries to get consumers to think about agricultural and environmental sustainability.

"I tell people that the way coffee was grown for hundreds of years had a low impact on the environment," says Cummins. "And that with sun-grown coffee--the 'innovation' of the international coffee cartel--what you do is chop down everything and use a lot of chemical fertilizer, pesticides and so on. In essence, you destroy the environment."

European Sophistication

Activists like James and Cummins have wondered why Europeans are ahead of Americans in bringing fair trade to market. Since 1998, seven different products--coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas, honey, sugar, and orange juice--have been available with the fair-trade label in Europe. Fair-trade products were also available in Japan and Canada before the United States. Why are we were behind?

"In Europe the media [are] better," says Cummins. "The political system is based on proportional representation. There are the same number of people here as in Europe who support Green Party ideas; the difference is they have 10 percent of the seats in the European parliament and we have no seats in Congress."

Cummins adds there is mass support for organic food--and mass antipathy toward chemically altered or genetically engineered food--because of Europe's Nazi past, which makes people extremely wary about a super-race of anything or genetic enhancement. The recent outbreak of mad cow disease is also an undeniable factor.

"We just can't comprehend what it feels like to know that you might die because the government lied to you about industrial agriculture practices," says Cummins. "Europeans now say: 'Never am I going to just accept something because establishment science and the government tell me it's safe.'"

As for a more sophisticated understanding of globalization, James says Europeans are ahead because they are able to tie the lessons of their colonial past to today's global future.

"Europeans have a direct understanding that the system of agriculture we have now--where farmers are exploited and their products are unfairly sold--is based on a colonial system," she says. "Whereas in the United States we do not feel responsible for the fact that in the Windward Islands of the Caribbean people there are entirely dependent on banana plantations because we put them there."

James would like to link nonfair-trade coffee to the history of colonialism or the concept of "neocolonialism," but she says, "If you bring up the word colonialism or imperialism here, people have no idea what you're talking about."

The Future of Ethical Consumerism

Although Americans may be somewhat blind to history, polls show they are awake to the present. According to a December 1999 US News & World Report poll, six in 10 Americans are concerned about the working conditions under which products are made in the United States and more than nine in 10 are concerned about working conditions under which products are made in Asia and Latin America.

This is good news for ethical consumerism. It shows that consumer choice based on criteria of economic justice and environmental sustainability has a future. But does it mean that ethical consumerism can grow beyond the 50 million Americans who supposedly practice it? Can ethical consumerism--without government support and positive mainstream media attention--be viewed as something other than the ultimate knee-jerk liberal issue?

Argues Ronnie Cummins: "It's a very good historical trend that consumers are becoming more aware, but unless trade unions and churches, consumer groups and environmental groups work together--North and South--we're not going to solve this problem. Sure, we can alleviate some of our bad conscience on a day-to-day basis, but that's not getting to the root of the problem, which is unchecked globalization. Even if you can produce cheaper in China the hidden costs of doing something like that are pretty darn convincing."

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From the December 28, 2000-January 3, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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