By Lindsey Bolger
Looking back, 2013 was a rough year for coffee, but also a year of great opportunity. Coffee market prices saw one of the biggest price slumps in decades, and a severe outbreak of a coffee leaf-killing disease – called coffee rust or “la roya” – decimated crops and affected about 75 percent of Central American coffee farmers.
Despite these market challenges, some businesses were still able to celebrate profits, and consumers were still able to drink their daily cup of coffee. But it’s the unseen coffee farmers who continue to bear the burden. That’s why supporting Fair Trade for the health and sustainability of coffee-growing communities is more important than ever.
As the Vice President of Coffee Sourcing & Excellence for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc. (GMCR), it’s my job to delve into the intricacies and human faces behind one of the most popular beverages in the U.S. Watching the ups and downs in the coffee marketplace, I have seen firsthand how Fair Trade acts as a sourcing model that provides a great cup of coffee for consumers and a better quality of life for coffee farmers. By setting a minimum buying price for coffee beans, Fair Trade is able to deliver “premiums” or community development funds that provide opportunities to not only positively impact coffee quality and sustainability, but the people behind the coffee as well. GMCR began purchasing Fair Trade Certified coffee in 2000 and has since expanded its commitment to become the largest purchaser of Fair Trade Certified coffee.
Fair Trade levels the playing field by providing financial means to improve communities and create new opportunities for education, healthcare or advancing the way farmers run their businesses. Since 2000, GMCR has delivered more than $22 million in community development funds to coffee farmers around the world – helping fund schools, community centers and better access to healthcare. At the source, the beginning of our coffee supply chain, it is easy to see the impact of Fair Trade in empowering coffee-growing communities and why GMCR believes so strongly in this movement.
Fair trade and social justice
In Popayan, Colombia, several small coffee farmers have become firm believers in the importance of education as a way to stop cyclical poverty. While many of the farmers received limited formal education, they understand the importance of education for their children. Fair Trade has become essential for them in providing the resources necessary to advance their childrens’ education. The community development funds generated from the Fair Trade Certified coffee that farmers sell to large buyers like GMCR allow farmers to purchase shared houses for their children in bigger neighboring cities where higher education opportunities are available. This is a huge advantage in a rural area where secondary schools are few and far between.
About 700 miles due south, where GMCR has been sourcing Fair Trade coffee since 2004, Fair Trade is impacting another South American community in a different way. A community bank, established by Fair Trade premium funds, is a pioneering entity in Agua Azul, Peru providing important financial services to the community. While you won’t find tellers and checking accounts here, the bank renders economic empowerment opportunities to the community.
Acting more as a local micro-financing cooperative than a bank, members contribute money on a weekly basis and then vote on micro-finance loans – requested by different bank members – to fund. The most surprising thing about this bank is that of the approximately 20 bank members, all but one are women. Through the bank, women gain financial literacy skills and are empowered to make important choices and decisions in their community. A community and bank member, Maria Sabina Hernandez Cueva, explains that the bank has provided a lot of opportunities for women and that, “Fair Trade doesn’t discriminate against color, gender, race or religion.”
A win-win for consumers
In addition to the social justice impacts Fair Trade has on the unseen players in the coffee supply chain, there are also many positive implications for consumers. Every Fair Trade Certified bean that arrives at a milling facility for example goes through a rigorous quality control process so we know that each bean in each bag of coffee we sell meets our high standards.
Additionally, because of transparency in the Fair Trade supply chain, GMCR can provide direct feedback to Fair Trade cooperatives and their members to ensure the quality of their coffee aligns with our expectations. In fact, we meet with most of our suppliers of Fair Trade coffee on an annual basis, either in their communities or at our headquarters in Vermont, to calibrate around quality standards and discuss plans for future business. These opportunities for direct engagement translate to stable relationships and a stable supply of excellent quality coffee, harvest after harvest.
While the positive benefits and implications of Fair Trade are far-reaching and complex, the first step toward making a difference is an easy one –and that’s to choose Fair Trade products. Simply choosing to replace items that you normally buy – such as coffee, chocolate, sugar, tea or even clothing – with those that are Fair Trade Certified helps to ensure that you’re getting a good quality product and that the people who made it are getting a fair price for their products.
I recently took a source trip to Peru with Kelly Clarkson to meet some farmers and see our coffee supply chain in action. You can go to www.facebook.com/GreenMountainCoffee to learn about how choosing Fair Trade helps create a better quality of life for farmers around the world.
Image credit: Flickr/Rainhead