Published by YorkU Media Releases, March 18, 2002
By Eileen Harrington
It is early morning. You are feeling groggy and you stumble into the kitchen to prepare a magical elixir. This cup of black gold, you hope, will break through the fog engulfing your brain and energize you for the day ahead.
Coffee—whether we drink it first thing in the morning or as an afternoon respite, often we do not think about all the work that went into bringing it to our table. Last Monday, however, a panel discussion at York University, entitled “Promoting Fair Trade at York (or How to Feel Better about Your Coffee Habit)”, examined some of the issues involved in coffee production.
Many different programs and research centres on campus sponsored the panel, representing a range of people working on the economic, social and ecological issues surrounding the production and consumption of coffee.
Linda Burnside, a graduate of the Faculty of Environmental Studies MES program and founder of Alternative Grounds, a coffee shop dedicated to promoting fair trade coffee, spoke on the business aspects of fair trade, and stressed how, within the fair trade system, buyers form direct and lasting relationships with the coffee growers.
Erwin Jiménez brought in his perspectives by sharing his experiences working for the Just Us! Worker’s Co-op, which markets fair trade coffee, tea and chocolate from Latin America and Asia.
Bernard Solaz of Oxfam Canada, a York graduate, presented ways of promoting fair trade and starting fair trade campaigns.
Professor Fahim Quadir, the head of the International Development Studies program, demonstrated how fair trade could serve as an alternative development approach to eradicating poverty while ensuring environmental sustainability.
Finally, Professor Howard Daugherty, Director of the FES Las Nubes Conservation and Research project in Costa Rica, stressed the importance of not only the economic and social dimensions of fair trade coffee, but also the enhanced ecological sustainability of shade-grown and organic coffee.
Students and professors from several Faculties attended the panel presentation. FES’ Counter Culture provided complementary coffee—a Peruvian organic medium roast from Alternative Grounds.
What exactly is fair trade and why is it important?
In the conventional coffee commodity chain, coffee passes through many hands before actually arriving on supermarket shelves or in cafés. Each one of these hands receives a portion of the profit. Under the current system, for each cup of coffee you purchase, about 10% of the profit goes to the coffee growers, while 55% goes to the companies who ship and roast it. Coffee growing is a very labour-intensive process, and the beans are all handpicked. Therefore, the men, women and children who cultivate coffee, often under harsh environmental conditions, receive the smallest portion of the profits. Currently, four companies–Nestlé, Proctor and Gamble, Phillip Morris and Sara Lee–control 70% of the worldwide coffee market. Also, world coffee prices have reached all-time lows this year, which means many growers are not even covering their costs of production. This dip in the world price, however, is not reflected in the price that consumers pay for their coffee.
Fair trade seeks to provide a more just price to coffee growers by taking out some of the intermediaries in the commodity chain. Under this system, small farmers form cooperatives, which sell their coffee directly to fair trade organizations in Europe, North America and Asia. Buyers and farmers draw-up long-term contracts in which they agree on prices and quantities of coffee. This provides more stability for small farmers since they are assured a market over the long-term.
All fair trade organizations guarantee a minimum price to farmers, and if the coffee is certified organic, then farmers receive a premium. The farmers’ cooperatives re-invest a portion of their profits into their communities by funding various development projects, including the improvement of educational and health services and the development of production techniques which are more ecologically sound. In this way, growers and their families are ensured a more sustainable livelihood.
The panel discussion on March 11 represented the first step of a fair trade campaign at York. Participants will be meeting again to develop strategies for getting fair trade coffee into all of the coffee outlets at York. In conjunction with this initiative, York’s Las Nubes project is creating a marketing plan for fair trade, shade-grown, organic coffee from southern Costa Rica. Several MES students have conducted research in the Las Nubes region related to coffee. They found that many of the coffee growers showed an interest in converting their farms to shade-grown organic coffee, but not knowing how to access these markets has kept them from doing so. The Las Nubes project will help to link farmers to these markets, and the economic benefits from the sale of Las Nubes coffee will be reinvested in sustainable community development, more ecologically sound agricultural production systems, and applied research by York students. FES students and faculty associated with the Las Nubes project hope to link with the fair trade groups to formulate a unified and integrated plan to the York community.
Everyone is welcome to become a part of the fair trade campaign at York. For more information on fair trade coffee and/or to get involved with the campaign, contact Darryl Reed, Coordinator of Business & Society in the Faculty of Arts at firstname.lastname@example.org. As several of the panelists emphasized, fair trade is not about charity; it is about social and economic justice and ecological sustainability. We can all work towards a more just society and a more socially responsible University in a very simple way—by making a conscious choice in the kind of coffee we buy.