Local coffee houses bypass Fair Trade, working directly with growers to get them more money
I saw that illustrated on my recent visit to the Ritual Roasters facility where roasters convert raw beans procured worldwide into aromatic coffee. As I was drinking a cup of very fresh coffee, owner Eileen Hassi showed me pictures of the exact farm where my coffee had been grown.
She had made a recent trip to this Costa Rican coffee farm, and taken pictures of the farm, the processing facilities, and the owners. It is this visible connection, as well as high quality coffee, that contribute to the growing popularity of some San Francisco independent roasters.
Local roasters Ritual, Four Barrel and Blue Bottle Coffee Co. follow this model of buying coffee directly from the producers and forming beneficial relationships. Some roasters call this direct trade.
"For me, it's the only way to get the best quality coffee and the only way that you can continue to get the best coffee is to pay good money for it," says Four Barrel owner Jeremy Tooker. "If you pay your pickers better then they pick better coffee."
Hassi believes that the cost of coffee will continue to increase because of a volatile, heavily fluctuating market, increased consumption, and global warming causing some places to lose their capability of producing coffee.
"If all of us in the developed world want to keep drinking coffee," she says, "we need to get used to paying a lot more for it."
James Freeman, owner of Blue Bottle Coffee Co., says he believes there's a place for Fair Trade. "It's a certification and, like all certifications, there's the pluses and the minuses," he says. Yet his coffee is uncertified and purchased directly from producers and organic cooperatives. "The cheapest we buy coffee for is probably two, two-and-a-half times the fair trade minimum," he says. "In a way it's better for fewer farmers, but at least it's better."
Wagner disputes several San Francisco roasters' claims that the $3–<\d>$4 minimum price they pay is double Fair Trade's. "The market has been over $3 on many occasions in the past year," she says, reiterating FairTrade's policy to pay producers either the Fair Trade minimum or the market price. "So to say you're paying double the fair trade minimum without knowing what is going on that is actually you distorting the information...We love people's efforts to trade more directly with farmers, but we do not appreciate spreading misinformation about Fair Trade. That doesn't help anyone."
Fair Trade's popularity stems from its altruistic image, and to lose this image through "misinformation" might do damage to its popularity. But challenging people's assumptions about Fair Trade could help raise its standards, which Patzel says need to be "upgraded and improved".
"It is my belief," she says, "that the FTA [Fair Trade Association] and other certifying entities may want to consider how to improve the Fair Trade calculator, ensuring that it is not the exporters that are making the majority of the income and instead, increase the wealth distribution starting at the very base and bottom of the pyramid, not in the middle."
Even Wagner concedes, "We've made significant impact but we can do more."
Patzel says Fair Trade farmers may not even be treated better than convention coffee farmers. "Just because a farmer is producing Fair Trade coffee does not mean — not at all — that they are being treated better than farmers who are not. It depends on what kind of relationship they have with the producer," she says. "It really is a case by case basis."
Gilbert Ramirez has been working to run a cooperative in Costa Rica for 25 years that is 70 percent Fair Trade. For him, the monetary increase between Fair Trade and conventional coffee is 15-20 percent.