Last night we saw Black Gold: A Film about Coffee & Trade, part of the Wexner Center’s excellent Field & Screen series. It was a heartwrenching story about Ethiopian coffee farmers who work pitiless hours under Godawful conditions to receive a miserable fraction of the value of their end product—literally, about a penny for every dollar spent on a cup of coffee. The protagonist of the story was Tadesse Meskela, whose efforts to organize, educate, and protect his cooperative of farmers by getting a Fair Trade price for their coffee are documented throughout the film. The contrast between the pitiful Third World coffee farmers and the cheerful Seattle latte-sipping consumers could hardly have been more painful to watch.
Why, then, did I walk out feeling as though I’d read only half the story?
The film left the viewers with a stark contrast: there’s coffee that’s Fair Trade, and there’s coffee that isn’t. Fair Trade coffee is good for coffee farmers, and coffee that isn’t Fair Trade subjects them to truly, abjectly awful conditions. In documenting those conditions, it does a valuable service for all of us: we should know how our spending has an impact on the people who are producing our food, and many coffee drinkers simply don’t.
But if the goal is to help people understand how spending has an impact on producers, I’m not sure that the movie does the best job that it could do. Fair Trade is, to be sure, better than the cruel exploitation documented in the film, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect, or even necessarily the best available option to achieve that goal.
Point #1: Fair Trade sets a minimum price for coffee. That’s good—in some cases very good; the farmers in Ethiopia received far less. In a bad market, especially, it provides a crucial safety net. In the absence of any other information, it’s definitely better than nothing at all.
Point #2: Fair Trade is actually fairly controversial within the coffee community, often most so among the most socially conscious. Producers must belong to cooperatives, for example, and most don’t; certification and recertification are expensive (thousands of dollars for an initial certification); and, crucially, it doesn’t do anything to push the price of coffee higher than a set minimum price. In a worst-case scenario it could attract some producers of poor-quality coffee who couldn’t get the Fair Trade minimum for it any other way. In general, if the goal is to improve the lives of coffee farmers around the world, while it’s better than nothing, is it either necessary or sufficient?
Point #3: Specialty coffee purveyors (if you’re reading this, that’s probably what you drink) care far more about coffee farmers than most people realize. Many voluntarily pay well above what Fair Trade requires. Some of them cut out the middleman by traveling “to origin” and making contracts directly with farmers. They even work with farmers to help increase quality, thereby driving prices up at auction. The most spectacular example of the success of this strategy is Hacienda la Esmeralda Special, the coffee that sold, in various lots, at anywhere from $24 to $117.50 a pound last year… but prior to 2004 had been growing, unpicked and uncupped, on the plantation.
So what are your options in Columbus? The good news is, you’ve got a lot more than you might think you do. Some are Fair Trade, some are not. Stauf’s is particularly happy with its Cafe Femenino, a really delicious coffee that puts money directly into the hands of women in rural communities around the world. Jeff Davis at Cafe Brioso actually buys most of his Ethiopian coffees (including the Sidamo, his favorite) from Tadesse Meskela’s coop—and he’ll be the first to tell you that its remarkable quality is the product of its economic, environmental, and social sustainability.
But these are truly just the tip of the iceburg. The point is, you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you walk into Stauf’s, Cafe Brioso, Yeah Me Too, A Touch of Earth at the North Market, Luck Brothers, Impero, or any of the local independent coffeehouses, and simply say, “Show me some coffee that helps the farmers.” I’ll bet you your next cup of coffee that they won’t even hesitate.