Monday, November 28, 2011

Fair Trade gets a bit less fair

For a few years now, I've been buying organic, Fair Trade certified coffee in bulk from a supplier in Massachusetts called Dean's Beans. By buying five pounds at a time from them, I was able to keep the price down below $10 a pound—which is still pretty expensive, but the best deal I'd ever managed to find for Fair Trade. (On the off chance that anyone reading this blog isn't already familiar with Fair Trade, the idea behind it is to ensure that farmers and craftspersons are paid a fair price for their goods. Various organizations offer Fair Trade labels, which certify that they have inspected the farm and ensured that it meets basic standards for worker treatment, sustainability, and so on. The international umbrella organization for such groups, Fairtrade International, has more information.)

On my most recent visit to the Dean's Beans site, however, I made two distressing discoveries. First, the cost of both coffee and shipping has gone up, pushing the price per pound to nearly $11; and second, in a possibly related development, Fair Trade USA (the most prominent certifier of Fair Trade goods in this country), has just split off from Fairtrade International and has lowered its standards to certify products with "as little as 2% Fair Trade ingredients." In other words, the familiar "Fair Trade Certified" logo is about to become all but meaningless. The folks at Dean's Beans predict that brands like Starbucks and Green Mountain will soon proudly promote themselves as "100 percent Fair Trade Certified," even though their actual supply chains won't have changed one bit.

Frustrated by these developments, I decided to check out the selection of Fair Trade coffees at Trader Joe's. I wanted to find out, first of all, whether they still offered any Fair Trade selections that came in at under $10 a pound, and second, whether their coffees were legitimately Fair Trade. The good news is that the answer to both questions was yes: Joe had several types of joe bearing Fair Trade labels, and all of them were marked as complying with the international standards—not the newly lowered standards of Fair Trade USA. And while not all of these coffees were under $10 a pound, several of them were. The bad news, for me at least, was that not one of these selections was available in decaf. So, for coffee drinkers who want the buzz—and a Fair Trade standard with some teeth—Trader Joe's looks like the way to go. But for those of us who can't handle the caffeine, it looks like Dean's Beans Mexican Chiapas decaf, at $45 for 5 pounds (plus $9 for shipping), is still the best deal in town.
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