It’s certainly not simple, is one observation I’ve made. Sure conceptually it is – make sure producers are paid a fair price (e.g., above the cost of production) for the product. What sympathetic human being could argue with that? Certainly not me. But in practice?
Over the past few days, and for the next couple coming up, I have been receiving new shipments of coffee. Having grown up on a farm, in a farming community, I have mixed emotions about certification programs and decided a while ago to let cup quality be my arbiter. Perhaps not unexpectedly with that criteria, most of the coffees I ordered recently turned out to be organic. One was also Fair Trade. As I calculated costs and determined resale prices, it occurred to me that the Fair Trade coffee was not quite, but was almost, the least expensive coffee among those I had ordered. This gave me pause.
Now I should say that none of the coffees were “cheap”. Certainly I paid enough for any one of them that the producer could have been paid a fair price for it. But the fact of the matter is it’s hard for me to know. Am I to assume that excess profits on the more expensive coffees went into the pockets of a middleman? Or perhaps more likely in my experience, that the producers were paid what the market would bear, and that nobody was interested in the overhead of another certification?
On the few coffees I have been fortunate enough to buy direct from farm, those producers universally acknowledged that the benefit of certification did not outweigh the cost, for them. (Note: It’s easy for a consumer to want to buy “relationship coffee”, but you should know that it’s tough for a small guy like me, or even some significantly larger, to buy direct. I inquired about joining a buying cooperative and was advised by a member not to even bother applying due to a local competitor being part of the co-op. So much for fair trade, or market competition, anyway.)If I chose not to buy those coffees because they lacked a stamp of approval, who would I be helping? Or hurting?
I read an article about transparency contracts recently in Roast magazine. Seems like maybe a good idea. In the meantime, I’m back to cup quality as my criteria.