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More than just some buzzwords on the side of the bag, Fair Trade certification and the movement behind it can go a long way in ensuring that the beans that you brew come complete with the best intentions—and the most sustainable results.

What makes Fair Trade–certified coffee so much better for the beans, for the farmers, for the earth, and for your morning cup?

Coffee prices have been much in the news over the past few years, as commodity futures trading has caused historic hikes on green beans everywhere. Climate change, supply-demand shifts, and economic turbulence are all partially to blame, and coffee drinkers—at least those who favor something more than a cup of brown caffeinated sludge—are undoubtedly starting to feel the pinch.

But when we feel the pinch as coffee drinkers, that often means they're also getting squeezed where the plants are grown, not simply pocketing the difference. Though it amounts to a caffeine headache on the drinking end, to a coffee farmer that tightening vice can mean certain failure.

One significant means of battling that failure is by buying certified coffees from responsible retailers, and understanding the meaning behind the movement.

 

Fair Trade is a sustainability-inspired market movement aimed at improving the financial health and profitability of small producers and farm owners, most of whom are based in developing nations, and whose products are bought and sold on a relatively volatile global market. (Many but not all of the products that are eligible for Fair Trade certification are considered commodities: fruit, textiles, and flowers, for instance. Today we'll be speaking specifically about coffee, and how certification affects the people who grow and buy it.)

In order to achieve stability, Fair Trade certifying organizations have encouraged coffee farmers with modest plots to band together and form democratically run organizations or co-ops; doing so allows the larger group to simulate an economy of scale, pooling financial resources to buy and distribute supplies evenly, and to command greater financial leverage by negotiating prices as a unified body, rather than piecemeal among the individual growers.

Because a Fair Trade–certified growers group has more coffee in its combined coffers than any one member might have had on his or her own, it has a better ability to bargain with processing mills and foreign buyers for better prices across the board. Additionally, the Fair Trade certification commits potential buyers to a contract that mandates a minimum base price that's ten cents per pound above the current commodity rate, as well as a guarantee of purchase despite global price crashes.

Fair Trade certification also requires that the growers group proves its own practices are within a set of ethical standards that include, among other things:acceptable working conditions, the absence of child labor, and ecologically responsible farming. (The latter, however, does not imply that the farms need to have organic certification to qualify, though many do.)


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