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Friday, November 25, 2011

Ethics at the grocery store part 2: Decoding your coffee label

So I talked a lot on Wednesday about my convictions in regards to shopping in our home. It's not always fun, but I can't ignore them.

I first heard of Fair Trade certified foods when I was in college, around the time I started working at the natural foods store near my school. I learned that most coffee farmers are little more than indentured servants, working year in and year out growing coffee, only to be payed less that what it cost them to produce the coffee. This puts them into a cycle of debt that they can't even begin to dig themselves out of. Most of the cost of our coffee goes to pay middle men who buy the coffee from the farmers, then raise the price exponentially to sell it to our major coffee companies. It's not just coffee, either. I've seen fair trade certification on sugar, chocolate, tea, and even bananas.

Since my first meeting with the Fair trade logo, which looks like this, by the way -

-I've seen all kinds of logos. I've seen Fair Trade, Fairtrade, Direct Trade, Whole Trade, and Rainforest alliance certified. I used to just think to myself "Well, it's better than nothing." and buy the product, not knowing what exactly I was supporting. I've finally decided to do some research and share it with my readers here. Which one is best? Well, I guess that depends on what your priorities are. Are you looking for farmer-friendly? environmentally friendly? tasty?

Fair Trade: Fair trade certified products, which have the logo pictured above, cover a few different bases in terms of being ethically produced and traded. Farmers must follow environmental and social standards, and they are in return promised a well-regulated minimum for their coffee. The downside is that there are no regulations regarding quality, and there is a cost to a farmer who wants to become Fair Trade certified. Some smaller farmers cannot afford this fee.

Fairtrade: This is basically the same thing as Fair Trade, it is simply the global term used to refer to Fair Trade. If you purchase an imported product, it may have this label. 
I know that Wal-Mart has a Sam's choice brand of coffee that is both Fair Trade and very affordable. I can't vouch for the taste, I don't think I've ever tried it.

Direct trade: With Fair Trade, there is a set of regulations that is the same for every coffee grower and buyer must be followed for certification. Direct trade (which doesn't have a logo) differs from this in that each buyer makes a deal with a specific coffee grower, and the agreement may be different for each buyer and seller. This means that you may want to do some research before settling on a direct trade brand, to make sure that the trade agreement is indeed fair. However, this is a pretty good bet because the "middle man" has been cut out. Hence the name "Direct Trade". Direct trade agreements are usually geared more toward specialty coffee companies or shops that want to focus on quality and wish to have a more direct connection with the coffee they sell. This is a good bet for people who are more picky about the quality of their Cup 'a Joe. I know Target carries a store brand direct trade coffee, but the options are limited. I haven't tried this coffee, either.

Rainforest Alliance Certified: With Rainforest alliance certified products, the farmers are given incentives to practice sustainable, earth friendly farming. There is no minimum buying price guaranteed, so this certification is more about protecting the environment than civil rights. It is also interesting to note that a product only has to contain 30% Rainforest alliance certified coffee beans to earn the label. While better than nothing, this label doesn't seem to carry much weight. Lipton teas are Rainforest alliance certified.

Whole Trade: If your coffee carries the "Whole Trade" guarantee, first of all, it must have come from a Whole Foods market. In order to earn a Whole Trade label, a coffee must meet all standards of a Fair Trade product, plus Whole Foods Market's standards of quality. This may be the best of all worlds because Fair Trade standards provide for the coffee grower and the environment, while the additional quality stipulations by Whole Foods make sure that you're getting a good cup of coffee. The last bag of coffee I bought carried the Whole Trade label, and I must say, it was some of the best coffee I've ever tasted. 

I've found that none of these products run much more pricewise than their non-certified counterparts, when we're talking about coffee. When I start looking at sugar, tea, and chocolate, the gap widens significantly. I haven't found a good alternative for these things, so we use them sparingly. We are mostly using honey and molasses to sweeten at our house now, and we buy chocolate as an occasional treat. I use a lot of tea making kombucha, and haven't found a consistent source for tea that has a certification other than Rainforest Alliance.

Do you know of any other certifications? Do you have any good sources for affordable fair trade products? 

Also, as a side note, how do you keep your coffee tasting fresh? We don't drink much coffee around here, so our bag always ends up going bad before it runs out. I'm currently keeping it in a sealed glass container in our fridge, and that seems to work ok, but not great.

This post was shared at Real Food 101, Traditional TuesdaysFat Tuesday, Simple Lives Thursday, and Fight Back Friday.


  1. Thanks for linking your great post to FAT TUESDAY. This was very interesting! Hope to see you next week!

    Be sure to visit on Sunday for Sunday Snippets – your post from Fat Tuesday may be featured there!

  2. I do wonder how coffee doesn't have a price difference, when other products are more expensive. Organic sugar is not filtered through bone char, which was my initial reason for getting it.

    I buy whole bean coffee, and grind it as I use it. But, I mostly do cold brewed iced coffee, which stays fresh for about a week in the fridge as a concentrate.

  3. I know I am really, really late responding to this; I just read this post today! My husband roasts our coffee and while it is not FairTrade certified, I am going to start looking in to finding some that is. We order our coffee beans green from Sweet Maria's. We buy big ole 20 lb bags and he roasts a little at a time so our coffee NEVER goes bad. It is really really easy, but it stinks up the house a bit! All you need is an oven set to 500 degrees, a baking pan, some patience, and time to research how long you want to roast. It differs depending on the bean you get. It's all trial and error, but in the end, we save so much money and our coffee is always LITERALLY fresh-roasted.

    We have a Bodum burr grinder, which we use every time we make coffee. My husband prefers to use a french-press, but I have discovered this drip-cup thing:

    I also found this FairTrade green coffee from Amazon:

    I like your info about labels and it will make me more aware of what we are buying from now on. Give roasting a try, though; it is fun and the coffee is so yummy!

    -Sarah Etheridge

    1. Thanks Sarah, this sounds like a fun project I will have to try! How much do you usually roast at a time, and how/ how long do you recommend storing it? Or do you roast just enough for one day?

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