Everything You Need To Know About Fair Trade Certified Coffee

Whether you're an at-home coffee drinker who sticks to the basics or you're a globe-trotting coffee craftsman, chances are you care about where your coffee comes from. The liquid black gold that kickstarts our pulses and our mornings can travel thousands of miles and be exchanged through hands countless times by the time it's harvested, sold, roasted, and distributed to you. If you've taken a closer look at the labels on all your coffee options at the grocery store, you've probably noticed the "fair trade certified" label at some point.

There are always new classifications and labels on our favorite coffees — organic, non-GMO, direct trade, single origin, and fair trade certified, just to name a few. What does this claim mean? Who does it impact? How are the taste and quality impacted, if at all? And, most importantly, are these products that deserve your hard-earned dollars? Here is everything you need to know about fair trade coffee to learn more about what's in your morning cup and help you decide if this longstanding designation is worth your attention.

Many fair trade certification organizations exist

No one organization wields all the power in designating fair trade certification. Multiple institutions have this capability, but the most recognized fair trade label is the blue and green Fairtrade International, according to Fair Trade Winds. Other organizations include the Fair Trade Federation, the World Fair Trade Organization, B Corporation, and Fair Trade Certified.

The larger organizations certify all kinds of products, while smaller groups may focus on niche products like clothing, wine, produce, or tech. As My Ethical Choice explains, which one a grower or producer picks will depend on geographical location and accessibility, what products the organization specializes in, that group's certification requirements and process, and the grower or producer's personal opinions of the organization's reputation — not all are created equal, which we cover in another section of this article.

Producers are not the only ones that have the power to choose which fair trade organization to support; as a consumer, you may research the different labels and use information about their certification process and complaints of noncompliance to determine if a group is ethical enough to receive your support. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is a great resource to compare six major fair trade groups in the U.S., including its own Fair Trade Practices Program.

Lots of fair trade commodities

If you want everything in your fridge and cupboards to be as ethically sourced as possible, coffee is not the only item you can buy with the fair trade stamp. While the products certified vary by the granting organization, the bigger labels work with thousands of companies and brands to provide the fair trade stamp — Fairtrade International alone works with 1.7 million workers and farmers.

With so many fair trade organizations, you can choose to shop certified products by their label, their type, the region sourced, or the price. Fairtrade International's top products, for example, are bananas, cocoa, coffee, flowers, sugar, and tea, but doesn't offer links to any products from its site. Fair Trade Certified, on the other hand, links you directly to brands and products with its certification label, from Patagonia to CVS to Pottery Barn.

One of the easiest places to look for all the fair trade products out there, however, is the local supermarket (your local supermarket is probably participating in other ethical practices as well, like food waste management). Other certified commodities on your grocery store's shelves could include fruits and produce, gold and precious metals, honey, nuts, and oils.

Many fair trade coffee products to choose from

If you are thinking of making the switch to fair trade certified coffee but are worried that you'll be restricted to just a handful of options, there's no need to stress. The fair trade movement has been around for nearly 80 years, according to World Fair Trade Organization, so there are ample brands and varieties of fair trade coffee to suit all tastes.

Here are some of the best brands with fair trade coffee this year: Lifeboost medium roast, described as a flavorful, rich, low-acidity bean; the smooth and low-acidity Volcanica Sumatra Mandheling; bright, bold, organic, and kosher Kicking Horse Coffee; No Fun Jo, a sweet and robust decaf made with the Swiss water method; and Tiny Footprint, a bold and sweet brew proclaimed as the world's first carbon negative coffee. If you want to stick with a familiar name, see the slide on big brands that use fair trade coffee for some widely-known coffee producers.

Fair trade is meant to combat exploitation

So what's the point of fair trade certification, anyway? This label ensures that the brand has been vetted to ensure there are safe and well-paid working environments up and down their product's supply chain, says Fairtrade International. This includes farms, plantations, factories, and distribution centers. Some organizations also certify that the brand's production is environmentally conscious, avoids deforestation, or is trying to reduce its carbon footprint. In the realm of coffee, this protection is keeping a dark history from repeating.

Exploitation and inhumane working conditions are the bitter truth behind coffee operations of the past, and even today, where, if unchecked, laborers may be subjected to all-day intense work tending to the coffee plants while battling exposure to brutal heat and dangerous agricultural chemicals. A U.S. Department of Labor report found that thousands of kids are roped into child labor to help meet coffee quotas.

As the fair trade movement has exploded and developed in recent decades, more and more farmers and laborers are protected so they may work in safe, humane environments; the most important requirement for fair trade certification is strictly no participation in these unethical and exploitative trends.

Most coffee farmers don't make livable wages from their harvest

Another critical function of fair trade organizations is confirming that farmers and workers are paid a fair wage for their labor and their product. Most of these small-time, local farmers don't make a living wage at all, says Coffee DRs Hornsby. The coffee market financially supports 120 million people, but not enough of this $36 billion industry makes it back to the farmers to help them keep food on their tables, especially in the rampant use of human trafficking and exploitation. Growers received less than $1 per pound for their beans on average in 2019, and the vast majority must add other streams of income to their life, yet the Specialty Coffee Retail Price Index just a few months later in 2020 was over $17 per pound.

In 2017, Fairtrade International found that whether a farmer makes a livable income from their coffee harvest varies by region: only around half of the Indonesian and Vietnamese farmers, a quarter of Indian farmers, and no Kenyan coffee farmers can support themselves and their families on coffee farming alone, despite it being a full-time and laborious industry.

Fair trade ensures fair wages for farmers and laborers

Along with protecting laborers from unsafe and inhumane working conditions, one of the leading purposes of a fair trade organization is to help coffee farmers bridge the gap to a livable wage. According to Dean Cycon, founder of Dean's Beans Organic Coffee Company, the problem has gotten worse over the decades. In the '70s, Cycon explains on the Disruptors for Good podcast, the farmer earned $1 for every $3 that retailers selling their coffee earned. Today, that ratio is 1-to-15 or even 1-to-20.

The first and paramount step in abolishing that disparity is for brands and buyers to be willing to pay a fair price for coffee that supports farmers, says Cycon. Fair trade organizations encourage that by enforcing a minimum price that certified commodities can be purchased. If the market price is over, they're paid more, but never less if it's under.

Another important factor is ensuring that growers are supported even when coffee prices in the global market are volatile (via Fairtrade International). Fair trade organizations help to ensure that farmers earn a living wage at all times and that children are not as likely to be pulled from school for free, unethical labor. When a brand or producer partners with a fair trade organization, they are pledging to pay higher prices for their coffee, and in turn supporting a better life for those who farmed it.

Certified growers are paid a Fair Trade Premium

In addition to the minimum price that protects farmers from stingy buyers or market price trenches, many fair trade certification organizations also offer the opportunity for producers to earn fair trade premiums, which is an extra payment people can choose to participate, says Fairtrade International, often including training, business resources, or much-needed improvements throughout the producer's community. Examples of this are health and education services, facilities and infrastructure, credit and financing for producers, and the introduction of best farming practices.

For example, Fairtrade International implements a price minimum of $1.35 per pound for unwashed, non-organic Arabica coffee, and a $0.20 per pound price premium. This additional sum is paid by the supply chain buyers, and the organization reports that buyers have paid over $200 million in premiums every year since 2017. However, as pointed out by researchers in the Journal of Rural Studies, one of the biggest downfalls to price premiums is that buyers must be willing to pay up. And, if that commodity's market is oversaturated with more supply than there is demand, supply chain buyers are more likely to find a producer willing to forgo receiving a premium.

Profits from Fair Trade Premium are controlled by a committee

To ensure equitable use of the additional money earned through the fair trade premium, the profits are managed by a fair trade premium committee, which is made up of elected laborers and appointed advisors from a farm or plantation's leadership (via Fair Trade Certified). Together, these representatives involved with the product decide which projects and services would most benefit not only their operation but their community as a whole.

Why doesn't the premium go straight to a producer or farmer's pockets? This extra payment is meant to benefit not only the plantation or landowner but the individuals who work on it, as well as their families, and the committee makes sure that happens. The premium is placed in a community development fund until its fated use is agreed upon. In the long run, this means that a coffee community's facilities, such as schools and hospitals, are in better shape to support the livelihoods of coffee laborers.

Fair trade is more expensive, but not by much

Between trade certified versus non-certified brands at the grocery store, you're likely to find that fair trade will cost more. Why? The answer doesn't exactly boil down to leading quality or exceptional taste: every stop on the fair trade supply chain, including you the consumer, shells out a little extra for fair trade coffee because it supports paying farmers.

How much more would you pay? The University of Notre Dame's Department of Economics sought to find out whether consumers were willing to pay a higher price for coffee that's fair trade certified. The research found that certification caused "a minor increase in the price of coffee of about $0.12 per package, a change of 1.1%" in the 21 brands included that began as uncertified and then obtained the fair trade label, so the substantial leap in how expensive coffee is to produce once it becomes fair trade certified does not significantly impact a brand that makes the change.

However, the study also found that comparing a certified brand to one that doesn't show an average increase in the price of $2.42 per pound for fair trade coffee. Overall, Notre Dame concluded consumers will pay $0.22 more for a package of fair trade coffee, so being loyal to a brand that becomes certified is likely, while switching from a non-fair trade to fair trade is less so, depending on the shopper's convictions surrounding the issues that fair trade addresses.

Fair trade coffee may taste different

Unfortunately, fair trade doesn't guarantee you a cup of coffee that you'll like. The movement is not meant to create better-tasting or even higher-quality coffee; its primary goals are the working conditions and wages for producers. However, those producers are expected to meet certain standards, namely environmental ones like water and soil quality, that may lead to a better overall product (via Fairtrade International), but that's no guarantee. Where some specialty coffee brands are selling their beans at a premium because they know their coffee tastes good and is competitive because of its flavor and quality, fair trade is sold at similar rates because, in ethical and humanitarian agrifood movements — like fair trade, organic, non-GMO, etc — quality is measured on factors that we don't immediately recognize when we consume the products, such as being environmentally conscious and the wages of laborers, says Bean to Bar World.

So, while it makes sense fair trade organizations aren't going to prioritize products on taste, we as consumers factor in how much we will enjoy a coffee when we choose to purchase it. The problem, Majesty Coffee explains, is that shoppers are going to naturally associate the higher cost with a better-quality, better-tasting food, which is often not the case with fair trade coffee. This leads to an important question for you, the coffee lover, to answer: Does the moral satisfaction that comes with fair trade taste as good as your favorite brew?

Fair trade and direct trade are different

Direct trade may be another marketing claim you've associated with your preferred coffee brands. Is this the same as fair trade? If not, is it better or worse? PBS explains that direct trade is not a form of certification, unlike fair trade. Direct trade simply means that middlemen are cut out between growers or farmers and the next step in the supply chain. An example of this would be an American-based coffee roaster purchasing beans directly from coffee farmers in El Salvador without the facilitation of an organization.

The purchaser is then required to do their own due diligence in assuring that the grower's farming practices and working conditions align with their values, rather than the values of a certification administrator. The U.S. roaster may only want to patronize farmers that condemn deforestation or plantations that are women-owned and operated — or they may buy strictly based on taste and subject coffee to cupping and testing before purchasing. Through direct trade, buyers have control over what morals and practices are supported, and the farmer receives a direct income that they can use however they see best without the oversight of a committee or co-op.

Fair trade coffee is used by many big brands

If you've decided that you only want to support fair trade coffee, you'll be pleased to know that your favorite big coffee names likely pledge to only use or sell fair trade certified beans. According to Fairtrade America, Starbucks is among the biggest buyers of fair trade certified beans. "Starbucks has always worked to source their coffee in a way that respects the people and places that produce it," Fairtrade America writes. "The company is proud of its commitment to buying and serving high-quality Arabica coffee that is responsibly grown and ethically sourced as they have been doing for 40 years." The coffee giant alone has provided over $14 million in financing to fair trade committees and co-ops, and was among the earliest private businesses to begin making fair trade fund investments — however, the company was caught sourcing coffee from farms that used child labor in 2020, via The Guardian.

The biggest competitor to Starbucks in the coffee playing field, Dunkin', also proudly pledged to serve fair trade espresso, certified by Fair Trade International. Other smaller chains may have some fair trade beans for certain roasts or retail but haven't committed entirely. On the grocery store shelf, you can find fair trade options from Newman's Own, Choice Organics, and Death Wish. If you're up for exploring a new brand, there are tons of fair trade coffee brands you can buy: Cafedirect, Equal Exchange, Kicking Horse, Higher Ground, Rise Up, and more.

Some brands decline using fair trade coffee

On the other hand, there are some store-bought coffee brands that either have raised ethical concerns surrounding their products or sourcing, and others that have been entirely mum about joining the fair movement. While it's not up to us to say that this makes those brands bad or that you shouldn't support them, this is important information to have if you're trying to be a more conscious consumer. According to Caffeine Informer, there are some labels out there that are harming us and the planet, using poor sustainability practices, pesticides, or other harmful chemicals, or harvesting their crop unethically.

The blacklist includes these grocery store staples: Folgers, Maxwell House, Nescafé, Café Bustelo, Seattle's Best, and Keurig. However, many of these brands have their own sustainability and ethics claims, like Folgers, and whether a brand is worthy of support is a very gray-area and nuanced based on the consumer's opinions. For example, we mention here that Dunkin' has made promises to serve fair trade coffee, but Caffeine Informer puts it in the poor ranks because retail Dunkin' is produced by J.M. Smucker, the producer that makes Folgers, and because the retail coffee does not share the same Rainforest Alliance certification as the beans used in-house. All in all, deciding which brands to support will likely be a very different process for you than it is for the shopper standing next to you in the coffee aisle.

The fair trade model has weaknesses

In this picture, a coffee farmer is protesting the harmful treatment of laborers in the industry. The sign reads, "coffee growers outraged by price abuse in monopoly markets." Many so-called green labels like organic and non-GMO are systematically imperfect (via The Harvard Gazette and ProTerra Foundation) and, having been poked full of holes for decades, the fair trade movement is not the exception. In 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that poor farmers were being hurt by high prices among "socially conscious" coffee movements. The middlemen that fair trade organizations seek to police can undercut growers during market times when coffee supply exceeds demand.

The Stanford Social Innovation Review also reported on fair trade concerns, explaining that "strict certification requirements are resulting in uneven economic advantages for coffee growers and lower quality coffee for consumers." Some argue that the fair trade movement is not keeping original promises to reduce poverty and improve life for coffee growers, because insufficient data exists to show an actual positive economic impact on farmers despite fair trade organizations' claims to create a safer environment and better life for growers.

Is the concept of fair trade a hollow theory that lost sight of its mission, or is it doing as good as can be done? Armed with all of the right resources and research, consumers like you have the control to make that decision with your buying power at the grocery store.