Aspiring media producer. Student at University of Technology, Sydney. Editor at Mantra Magazine and former Sub-editor at Vertigo.
With more than 2.25 billion cups of coffee sold worldwide each day, how do you know if your "cup of joe" is helping the average Joe?
To receive the Fairtrade sticker, coffee producers need to meet strict pay and farming guidelines.
Certification means you can be sure your dollar is supporting the livelihoods of farmers producing sustainable crops. But some coffee producers say farmers aren't seeing the benefits.
After Arabica prices fell to 16-year lows earlier this year, the coffee federations of Brazil and Colombia released a joint statement calling for fairer trade and equality in the market.
The statement took aim at the power imbalance surrounding the industry, stating: “[it] ruins the producers.”
“The holders of coffee stocks have a greater influence on the formation of international prices. Therefore, it is fundamental to equate the current imbalance, shifting the stocks from consuming countries to producing countries.”
The Colombian Coffee Federation, or Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia, said they: “insisted on the need for real commitment by all the actors in the chain to participate equally and co-responsibly in determining the reference price, in such a way that it responds to the hard work and dedication of coffee producers; the most fragile link in the chain.”
The group’s statement also suggests that international fair-trade companies should be held responsible.
“The programs that some multinational companies do to promote sustainability are offset by their business practices.
Currently, international coffee prices are below production costs, jeopardising the economic sustainability and survival of 25 million coffee families worldwide.
This demand for greater transparency from international fair-trade companies wasn’t the first since the drop.
A report on fair-trade coffee by the Centre for Global Development (CGD) suggests farmers in developing countries struggle to achieve and maintain the benefits of being certified as sustainable, without consistent external help.
The study spanned more than two decades and looked at the certification of smallholders by companies like Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ Certified, and 4C. Author, Kimberly Ann Elliott found: “modest benefits overall, but not for the most vulnerable producers."
"The bottom line is that for fair trade coffee certification schemes to work, they have to increase prices or productivity enough to cover farmer’s costs. Without greater consumer demand, the benefits of sustainability standards will remain limited and tentative."
Despite these limitations, Ms Elliot says we should continue to support Fairtrade, as it provides some security for farmers.
"One clear advantage that Fairtrade has over other coffee certification schemes is the minimum price. That implicit insurance is particularly helpful for smallholder producers of perennial crops, like coffee, where the trees take many years to mature and farmers cannot easily substitute other crops."
Affiliate Researcher with the Centre for Social Impact at UNSW Dr Fanny Salignac, completed her doctoral dissertation on Fairtrade. She met farmers in remote parts of India and Vietnam and found that despite the complex social barriers, Fairtrade organisations are trying to do good.
For me, Fairtrade does what it sets out to – that is: it helps marginalised farmers in developing countries out of poverty, by giving them equal access to international trade.
"In any attempt at addressing complex social issues and changing the system, there will be trials and errors. I think we’ve got some very competent people leading the Fairtrade market and the Fairtrade movement, like any other sort of ‘change’, it takes time,” she said.
Dr Salignac recalls a discussion she had with a Fairtrade representative in India: ”He told me that ethical/organic/sustainable type certification required a lot of work for them. There were many standards they had to uphold and it could make it difficult at times. He said, however, that Fairtrade was the only certification that ‘gave back’.”
Dr Salignac felt consumers should be using their buying power to shift the market towards ethical produce.
“At the end of the day, for profit companies need to make profit, it’s their primary motivation… the more people are ethically aware and make choices based on their ethical set of values, the more companies will supply ethical products.”
One of the bodies examined in the CGD study was UTZ/Rainforest Alliance. They are one of the largest importers of fairtrade coffee in the Indo-Pacific region, with their coffee sold at outlets like McDonalds and Nespresso. In 2017, they accounted for 5.6 per cent of the world’s entire coffee production.
Melanie Mokken from UTZ/Rainforest AUSNZ, agreed that vulnerable smallholders can comply with certification standards - but usually only with external help.
“Certification is a means to an end and not an end in itself," she said.
"Like any other tool, its impact depends on who, how, where and when it is used, under what conditions and level of support… the review rightly points out that the impact of certification is dependent on the context in which it is applied and needs strong partnerships to be effective.”
With over 90 per cent of the world’s coffee production taking place in developing countries, locally-grown is a niche, ethical alternative for the conscious coffee drinker - according to Australian producers.
Grower and roaster at Zentveld’s estate in Byron Bay, Rebecca Zentveld, says consumers need to redefine "sustainable coffee". She even suggests there needs to be a new term: "real fair trade".
“The Australian grower can demand, and should demand, a premium for their high quality raw coffee beans. They’re single origin, practically organic, sustainable production, and made by growers who are well remunerated for their efforts! That’s real fair trade. Where we can, we want consumers to be knowledgeable. To demand transparency,” she said.
Ms Zentveld says consumers need to demand corporate responsibility and support Australian growers where they can.
“So, we have that question, what should a consumer do? Well if you're in a supermarket, then buy fairtrade. It’s still the better commercial option than other imports. But if you can get yourself to a farmer’s market or mail order direct from a grower, you can feel good that you’re truly supporting that grower without the ‘middlemen’ taking much of the coffee earnings.”