Consumers who prefer to buy coffees that promise to reconcile pleasure with generosity toward the people and environment responsible for that pleasure, and who want to feel some solid confirmation regarding the generosity part, should find useful recommendations among the ten coffees reviewed this month. Nine of the ten are Fair Trade Certified, meaning that, according to the certifier, Fair Trade USA, small-holding farmers were paid a price for these certified green coffees that, based on a yearly updated formula, gave the farmers a “fair” or economically sustainable return for their production. A tenth reviewed coffee was certified by an organization using parallel criteria to Fair Trade USA. In addition, all ten reviewed coffees are certified organically grown, which, taken together with Fair Trade Certification, places them into a market category the coffee industry calls Fair Trade/Organic (FTO).
Assuming this pair of third-party certifications is enough to satisfy skeptical consumers’ socio-economic and environmental concerns, what about the pleasure part?
Eight at 90 or Better
Of the nineteen certified coffees we tested, eight rated 90 or higher, an excellent showing. Five others rated 87 to 88, a decent showing, leaving only six rated 86 or lower.
However, this impressive performance is mainly owing to coffees from one origin. The five top-rated coffees, all 91 to 93, are Ethiopias. By comparison, only two Central America coffees attracted a 90-or-better rating: the spicy, nutty Ghost Town Guatemala CODECH (90) and the deeply chocolaty Paradise Roasters FTO Guatemala Huehuetenango (90). A gently pungent Peru from Giv COFFEE (90) filled out the complement of eight 90-plus reviews. We also reviewed two solid 88-rated coffees, the sweet-savory, perfumy Honduras Finca Gaby from Magnolia Coffee and the crisply pungent Roast House 423 Blend, comprised of Fair Trade/organic coffees from Guatemala, Mexico and Indonesia.
The dominance of the Ethiopia coffees is probably attributable to three factors. As always, the complexity and originality of the native varieties of Arabica grown in the southern and western parts of the country give Ethiopias a sensory edge, no matter what the theme of the cupping. Second, the ongoing epidemic of leaf-rust disease in Central America constitutes a persistent challenge for all producers in the region, but particularly, perhaps, for small-holding farmers like those responsible for most of the region’s Fair Trade/organic-certified production. Also, the seasonal timing of our cupping may have discouraged the submission of more Fair Trade Certified coffees from Peru, one of the countries where the Fair Trade program has been most successful.
Sustainability Gone Mainstream
Finally, and most controversially, it is possible that Fair Trade certification may be losing its value as a marketing differentiator for coffee in the U.S. In other words, the Fair Trade seal may not give a coffee and a roaster quite as powerful a boost with consumers as it once did, encouraging a further shrinking of the pool of top Fair Trade Certified coffees available for our cupping. Not because specialty roasters or their customers have lost interest in sustainability for small-holding farmers and other farm workers. Rather, because that commitment appears to have diffused and gone mainstream.
In 1999, when Fair Trade Certified coffee was first launched in the U.S. under the leadership of Paul Rice, there was only one other significant coffee certification: organic. Now there are multiple certifications addressing an overlapping array of socio-economic and environmental concerns. They include major third-party-verified certifications like Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified, plus smaller, more specialized certifications like Smithsonian Bird Friendly. Starbucks has its own Café Practices certification, Nespresso its admired AAA Sustainable Quality Program. Mainstream coffee companies have led in the founding of the 4C Association, which sets “an entry-level standard that defines a global common baseline and starts all coffee supply chain actors on the path to the sustainable production, processing, and trade of coffee.”
Additionally, adherents of the loosely defined group of practices called Direct Trade make the argument that their independent efforts to build long-term relationships with producers by paying more for distinctive coffees net better money for those producers and better coffees for their customers in ways that both supplement and exceed what can be achieved through certifying programs like Fair Trade.
And Fair Trade USA itself has modestly widened its mission. Originally available only to democratically run cooperatives of small producers, Fair Trade Certification is now available to groups of small producers who work with a single exporter or wet mill, as well as to some qualifying farms or estates. Nevertheless, Fair Trade USA remains primarily focused on small-holder cooperatives. Ben Corey-Moran, Director of Coffee Supply for Fair Trade USA, points out that 95% of its certified coffees continue to originate with democratically managed cooperatives of the kind that Fair Trade Certification was originally designed to promote and support.
More Pressure on Fair Trade
Other trends are haunting Fair Trade Certified. The rigorously monitored farm-to-cup integration of the Fair Trade Certified movement appears to be unraveling a bit, for example. Three of the ten high-rated coffees we review this month were produced by Fair Trade Certified cooperatives, but because the three roasters retailing these coffees are currently not Fair Trade Certified, they cannot display the Fair Trade USA seal on packaging or websites. The complex reporting and record-keeping involved in maintaining Fair Trade certification is doubtless daunting for smaller roasting companies, as it is for some farmers. The time and effort involved in maintaining certification may make sense for roasting companies that make Fair Trade Certified a major element in their identity and marketing, but it may not for those small companies that simply want to offer one or two good Fair Trade Certified coffees as part of a general product mix.
For the record, anyone can call coffees “fair trade” or (the current favorite among copy writers) “fairly traded,” since neither term is the intellectual property of Fair Trade USA. However, only coffees for which the entire supply chain is certified by Fair Trade USA, from producer through importer to roaster, can legally display the Fair Trade USA seal and call its coffees “Fair Trade Certified.” Some complain that this tight vertical monitoring of the supply chain is limiting and coercive. On the other hand, Fair Trade USA also can justifiably complain that roasters who are not certified are freeloading, since Fair Trade USA has invested heavily in the formation and publicizing of the fair trade concept, as well as in helping cooperatives of small holders to produce more and better coffees over the long term.
Nevertheless, even if the institution we know as Fair Trade USA is eventually swamped in a sea of competing certifications, roaster defections and ambiguous marketing language, I would argue that it has honorably and successfully served its cause by pioneering the case for action in support of small-holding coffee producers who for decades have been routinely crushed by the logic of a commodity system pursuing price and volume largely absent of any consideration of environment, people, or quality of goods and experience. Fair Trade Certification itself could perhaps wither (I hope it does not), but it appears that its cause has an enduring life and power.