This guest blog post comes to us from Robin White, VP of Marketing at Reunion Island Coffee . Reunion Island offers a full line of coffees  that are both Fair Trade Certified and organic. Robin joined Fair Trade USA staff on a trip to Chiapas, Mexico to visit with Fair Trade coffee farmers, and wanted to share his experience with you.
Working in the coffee business, I’m often asked by friends and family about Fair Trade. Up until a few weeks ago, I would usually explain that Fair Trade guaranteed a minimum price to coffee farmers to protect against a crash in the price of coffee on the stock market. However, after a trip to Chiapas, Mexico with Fair Trade USA, I realize that this explanation was not only inadequate, but actually misleading.
Let me back up a little before I explain what I mean. During my more than 15 years on the marketing side of the specialty coffee business, I’ve been able to observe the market power of Fair Trade grow. Our customers are asking for Fair Trade products more than ever and want to understand the meaning behind the logo.
I made the trip to the mountains of Chiapas to see firsthand the real impact of Fair Trade on the lives of coffee farmers. The experience was eye-opening. We visited nine different Fair Trade certified cooperatives and spoke with dozens of their members. What surprised me most was the variety of responses to the question, “What does Fair Trade mean to you?” The minimum price that I had seen as the cornerstone of the Fair Trade model was barely mentioned, due to the many other benefits the Fair Trade has brought to their communities.
Eliana, from the Majomut Cooperative , said that her community has benefited from improved organization as coffee producers. This theme of solidarity and unity was echoed at almost every cooperative. Fair Trade has given small producers the ability to work together to improve their lives.
In this case, solidarity means more than just moral support. In many coffee-growing regions, predatory coffee brokers known as ‘coyotes’ will extend pre-harvest financing at exorbitant rates up to 120 percent. To settle the debt, farmers may be forced to sell their harvest at below-market value when it comes in. The coyotes win on both ends, while the farmers can get caught in a cycle of debt and dependence. Fair Trade helps these producers organize cooperatives to secure legitimate bank financing and provides access to buyers willing to pay a premium for quality.
For others, like Estela of theOPCAAC Cooperative , the 20 cent per pound Fair Trade premium that is paid back to the cooperative has made the biggest difference. The fund has helped pay for the social and gender equality programs that she runs. Other cooperatives have used this premium to pay for projects as diverse as organic composting facilities, new coffee cupping labs, and high schools with dormitories for students that commute from remote farms. Each cooperative votes on how the premium will be spent, ensuring the funds address the real needs of each community.
Speaking with Eliseo of the Majomut Cooperative impressed me most of all. He credited Fair Trade with building a business model that makes it possible for him to stay in his community and make a living as a farmer on his own land. Without Fair Trade’s involvement, he felt that he would probably be forced to abandon his land and move to search for work in Mexico City or north of the border. As a Tzotzil-speaking person with limited Spanish, let alone English, this would put him among the most economically vulnerable.
These conversations helped me to see that the Fair Trade minimum price is only a small piece of an intricate model. In fact, the expression “guaranteed minimum” is a misnomer. Fair Trade only guarantees a minimum price for coffee sold under the Fair Trade system. If there are no buyers willing to pay that price due to poor quality, oversupply, or other factors, the farmer is forced to sell their coffee through traditional channels.
Knowing this helped me to see why the cooperatives are putting so much effort into producing exceptional coffees. Eliseo and others asked us to communicate to our customers the hard work they do to improve their product and, as organic farmers, to protect their environment. For Eliseo, this work includes carrying his coffee one bag at a time from his mountainside farm to the community—an hour’s journey on foot.
After seeing firsthand the cooperatives of Chiapas, I understand that Fair Trade is more about giving farmers opportunities than guarantees. I can now say without reservation that “Every Purchase Matters” is more than a catchy slogan. Every coffee drinker has the power to change lives by choosing Fair Trade Certified coffee and other products.
To support small business in coffee-growing countries and your local community, ask for Fair Trade Certified coffee at your nearest independent café. To check out Reunion Island’s Fair Trade Certified coffees, please visit ReunionIslandCoffee.com . While we’re waiting for the Chiapas coffee harvest, you may want to try our Fair Trade and organic Ethiopia Oromia .
To learn more about Fair Trade Certified coffee, click here .