Is fair trade coffee that fair?

A little while ago, I stopped by Sprouts — the vegan co-op café in the basement of the Nest — to buy some organic fair trade coffee. Not gonna lie, I felt pretty good about myself afterwards. Not only was I supporting a local student organization, as opposed to a Safeway, I was also making an ethical purchase that — so I thought — would simultaneously lift coffee bean growers out of poverty and save the earth from GMO pesticides.

It has become quite fashionable in the last decade for businesses to tout their fair trade products — most notably coffee — and justify a significant price hike for them. For many businesses, selling fair trade products is less of an ethical decision grounded in the company’s beliefs and more often just a business decision based on a demographic of well-intentioned consumers. They are then lured into swallowing the additional cost of fair trade products through marketing materials featuring smiling farmers and community projects afforded by the fair trade program. 

While fair trade practices sound utopic and altruistic in theory, in practice they come with a whole host of issues and questions, as raised by Professor Kurt Huebner and Professor Werner Antweiler in interviews with The Ubyssey.

Who is certifying and supervising fair trade practices? How much of the cost difference between fair trade and non-fair trade products actually end up in the pockets of the farmers? Is achieving pricey fair trade certification financially feasible for poor farmers? Are organizations like Fairtrade Canada unfairly profiting from a program intended to benefit poor farmers? How are farmers that are unable to afford fair trade certification affected? And as Antweiler pointed out, is there an “unequal distribution of benefits from Fair Trade when the funds are channelled indirectly through Fair Trade cooperatives and communities, rather than farmers directly?” 

The issue of fair trade products — specifically coffee — is particularly relevant to UBC because in 2011, the university became an official member of the fair trade consumer community, being named Canada’s First Fair Trade Campus by Fairtrade Canada. According to the online announcement, this certification represents a commitment by UBC Food Services to buy only Fair Trade coffee, tea, chocolate and tropical fruit from “producers who guarantee higher social, environmental and pay standards for farmers and workers [in effort to] provide … an important example of institutional global citizenship … and advance sustainability and intercultural understanding.”

This measure does not apply to private franchises like Starbucks, Bean Around the World, Loafe, Tim Hortons, etc.

Some critics, including Huebner, question the true motives behind the switch to completely fair trade, citing the cache and positive impacts the designation would bring to the UBC brand. He noted the “feel-good factor” many consumers cite when purchasing fair trade as well as the “parents of middle class and international students [who] may feel better sending their kids to a university with environmental, green, feel-good elements — fair trade is one component of that.”

Six years after receiving the fair trade title, UBC Food Services seems to have kept its commitment. The two most common sources for beans and ground coffee at UBC outlets are Milano Boutique Coffee and Ethical Bean Coffee. Milano coffee is served at Caffè Perugia, Ike’s Café, Sauder Exchange Café, Sage Bistro and The Point Grill. Ethical Bean Coffee is used at most other places on campus.

Between the two, Ethical Bean certainly does more to promote its image as a sustainable, transparent and principled fair trade company, even developing a scanning tool for consumers to “follow [its] coffee’s journey from farm to shelf, view farmer interviews, learn secrets of the trade and even locate the field [its] coffee was grown in,” which it publicizes on its website.

Milano, on the other hand, seems to fall into the same category as the majority of fair trade coffee brands that do not emphasize as high a level of involvement as brands like Ethical Bean, for example. These brands all carry the fair trade label, but with such a decentralized certification process lacking international uniformity, what does that label really mean?

Boulevard Coffee, while not part of UBC Food Services and therefore not subject to UBC’s fair trade policy, was – and still is – a leader in the fair trade coffee movement on campus even before UBC received its designation. Its founder and owner, John Chen, has even taken trips to visit some of the farmers Boulevard sources its beans from, forging close relationships with those at every stage of the process.

This farm-to-table approach is also used by another non-UBC Food Services café, Great Dane. The only difference is that Great Dane is not fair trade-certified. They source their beans from Bows X Arrows — who have forged their own path by creating personal relationships with farmers who they visit several times a year to make business plans and ensure the well-being of the farmers and their families, instead of working with fair trade-certified cooperative.

Bows X Arrows’s approach sounds a lot like the mission fair trade sets out to achieve, yet it lacks official Fair Trade certification. The reality is that there are a lot more criticisms and grey areas in the world of fair trade certification — most of which does not trickle down to your everyday consumer when ordering an Uppercase latte. 

The aim of fair trade certification is admirable, but both Antweilier and Huebner deem the execution too inconsistent to be meaningful, calling for more strict and uniform government oversight instead. Huebner argued he “would be happy to have clearly quantifiable criteria in trade agreements that would follow well defined fair trade practices,” and Antweiler urged for higher “standards of accountability and transparency.” They also noted the unfortunate side effect of fair trade premiums that sometimes lead to a lower quality of bean and consequently a bad cup of coffee. 

Six years later, has UBC’s status as Canada’s first fair trade campus rightfully earned the hype? Ultimately, UBC Food Services has complied with fair trade practices and its most prevalent brand of beans, Ethical Beans, has gone to great lengths to ensure a high quality, transparent and sustainable product.

With the more than 9,000 kg of coffee or over 1,500,000 eight oz. cups of coffee served on campus each year, UBC Food Services has some serious purchasing power and choosing to support brands that strive for the ethical attainment of coffee beans — even if criteria for that is inconsistent — can’t be a bad thing.