Does "fair trade" automatically mean you're getting a better cup of coffee? In a new video, Vocativ takes a closer look at what the "fair trade" label really means for consumers and farmers.
Fair trade is a certification that was developed to protect farmers of commodities like cocoa, bananas and coffee. The fair trade label is supposed to guarantee that farmers have received a fair price for their goods. Typically the system works by setting a price floor, which limits how low a commodity can be bought for. Organizations like Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade International certify products with their stamp of approval, and consumers know they are buying goods that come from farmers who were paid honest prices.
Large corporations like Green Mountain Coffee and Starbucks have latched onto the concept. In 2011, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters bought 50 million pounds of fair trade-certified coffee, and Starbucks bought 44.4 million pounds.
With the rise in popularity of fair trade goods, the expectation has become that fair trade indicates higher quality, Vocativ's video says. But this isn't necessarily true. Fair trade "really only opens up the supply chain, but they don't add any value," explains coffee exporter Bill Harris in the video.
Fair trade coffee can be any quality grade, so, as the video puts it, "the taste of a fair trade-certified cup of java may not be as 'grande' as it's served up to be."
Coffee growers are now turning away from the fair trade certification towards and just getting their coffee graded as "speciality" because retailers will pay a higher premium for it. Farmers are finding they can grow better beans for a grade where quality matters, and sell them for a higher price
Companies like the Specialty Coffee Association of America evaluate the quality of coffee by grading three aspects: the taste of brewed coffee -- a clean aftertaste is ideal; the number of defects in the beans -- the fewer the better; and the degree to which the roasts are unique, and offer something different.
Consumers, inundated with the fair trade label, may not know that the "specialty" label can actually indicate higher quality.
Correction: This article originally stated that Fair Trade certification was developed in 1997, but in fact the organization Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International was founded in 1997, and the movement was started before that. Additionally, this article originally described "specialty" as a certification, when it is in fact a quality grade.