Friday, January 31, 2014

What's in Your Cup?

Have you ever stopped to think about where your coffee comes from? Think beyond the store…way beyond it. When was the last time you actually thought about who grew the coffee beans you ground up this morning to make coffee?

In his article “Justice at a Price: Regulation and Alienation in the Global Economy,” Daniel Reichman discusses how the global coffee market is regulated and brings up the topic of fair trade. He asks the following two questions in his article:  

(1)             “Who knows what nefarious forms of exploitation are happening on the other side of the world?”(102).
(2)            “In a world where individuality is valued, how does one simultaneously depend on mass-produced goods and assert individual creative autonomy?” (109).
In this post, I would like to discuss Reichman's questions and ask a few questions of my own concerning fair trade.
To address all these questions, let’s first look at the documentary film Black Gold (2006). The film documents Ethiopian coffee production by telling the stories of various Ethiopian coffee bean farmers and relating the struggles they face. The bottom line is that the farmers are grossly underpaid for their coffee beans, when one considers the price it sells for on the shelf. The film shows how Tadesse Meskela, the manager of Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union helps the farmers. Early on in the documentary, he talks with the farmers saying that he is going to find a better market for the beans, so the farmers can get a better price. They applaud. Later the film Meskala says that he eliminates 60% of the middlemen between the coffee grower and the consumer by selling the coffee directly to the roasters.  
That is the idea behind fair trade - eliminate middlemen so the coffee farmers can get more money for their coffee. But as I watched the film, I couldn’t help but think the following: Where is the money from the 60% reduction of middlemen going? If the profit was going to the farmers, wouldn’t they be even a little better off? Meskala has the money to travel around the world in a plane in search of a better market. Shouldn’t the farmers have money to buy enough food to eat? Why are the farmers getting next to nothing for their coffee and barely getting by? 
This made me think of how I view fair trade as something that benefits the farmers. The basis of my belief is rooted in the assumption that the officials in charge of selling the coffee actually distribute the profit to the farmers. We believe fair trade helps farmers only because we place our trust in those in charge. If those in charge aren’t letting the farmers see the profit, then what good is fair trade?  
That brings me back to Reichman’s questions…. Do we really know “what nefarious forms of exploitation are happening on the other side of the world?” (102). No, I don’t believe we know everything that goes on. Just because “‘fair’ certification for coffee guarantees that farmers (or grower cooperatives) have been paid a minimum price... per pound of unroasted coffee…and that workers are treated fairly on farms” doesn’t mean all that actually happens (103). We believe the guarantee because we trust it is happening as they say it is, not because we know for sure that it is. For all we know, the “nefarious forms of exploitation” are still occurring (102). We really don’t know. 
Reichman’s other question is “how does one simultaneously depend on mass-produced goods and assert individual creative autonomy?” (109). In answering this question, think of how many coffee drinkers and coffee name brands there are out there. (A lot.) Yet not everyone drinks the same brand. Reichman points out that “food and clothing are important elements of the creation of one’s social identity, so consumer brands like McDonald’s, The Gap, Nike, and Starbucks are the most targeted symbols of homogenization” (109). We have various reasons why we choose one brand over another. The reasons could be based on anything ranging from money, popularity, or personal preference; and those choices create and shape our identity. While there is one product (coffee), there are many brands and types of it to choose from which enable us to “assert individual creative autonomy” (109).
Reflecting on the rising popularity of fair trade, could fair trade be considered “a brand”? A brand in the sense that choosing fair trade is perhaps becoming more of a popularity based decision to keep up with the Joneses? Are fair trade products becoming more of just a conscience-satisfying decision, so people don’t feel too bad about the exploited farmers in the far reaches of the world, instead of a truly ethical choice? 
I don’t think fair trade works in every farmer's case…. Because I find it hard to imagine that all the officials in charge have dealt with the all the farmers ethically and have remained uncorrupt. But, although we can’t be for sure whether or not the farmers are getting their fair share, there remains a chance that some do, and wouldn't those farmers be worse off without fair trade? In the end, even if only one coffee bean farmer has been helped, I’d say fair trade has done some good. 
As a side note here before I close, my class is going on a fieldtrip to a local coffee roaster next week. Where do they get their coffee beans? I wonder how the small business owners are making it in this economy. It will be interesting to see what the owners have to say about fair trade and coffee production from a small business owner’s perspective.



  1. Excellent questions and I agree fair trade doesn't solve all the problems is likely a step in the right direction. I recall in the film a discussion about funds being given to a village to put up a school so I think some of the money was going to the community of a co-op instead of the farmers' hands. So they still benefit.
    Your blog reminds me that these labor injustices are nothing new, but the power of the media may make them harder to ignore.

  2. I agree with your assertion that the concept of fair trade can be deceptive. Unless an individual is involved in every step and transaction during the marketing process, that individual cannot be certain whether he or she is benefitting or being exploited. I also feel that people seem to, in a word, "find" their identities through the use of brands. In my opinion, the most prevalent form of this is through popularity. Certain people tend to place a heavy emphasis on the brands they carry, and others attempt to use these brands as a way of assimilating themselves within certain social structures. Starbucks coffee, for example, is consumed by many people for the simple fact that its a brand, and others trend toward drinking Starbucks coffee because they wish to be accepted by those that drink it as well. This isn't true under all conditions, but, in a sense, brands create identities at the expense of individualism. it almost raises the question, "Do people feel passionate about free trade because they are truly concerned? Or are they simply following a trend?"

  3. Good point about where the money from the 60% reduction is going, we would like to think that the money is going to the people who should be receiving it, but there is no real way for us to know. In the same way, there is no real way for us to know if fair trade products are truly “fair.” I feel like the fair trade label has shifted away from its original purpose and it has become more of an advertising tactic. Other labels that I feel have at times fallen to the same fate are the labels of “eco-friendly” and “organic.” I read an article in a psychology journal in which participants were asked to rate coffees on taste and whether they would buy it again or not. In some cases they were told before-hand that one cup of coffee was “eco-friendly” and that one was not, and in other cases they weren’t told until after (even though both cups were identical). In most cases people were willing to pay more for the “eco-friendly” coffee than the not eco-friendly – even if they liked the taste of the not eco-friendly coffee better! It’s amazing what labels can make us do (or buy).