If you are a coffee lover, chances are that at some point you have wondered about the value of buying beans that are 'Certified Fair Trade.' There will be those who tell you it is as bad to buy non-certified coffee as it is to buy a 'blood diamond.' On the other side, there are many who claim the certification system is a racket that only makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. So, who is right?
A little history will help us get into context.
Many decades ago, all coffee, including specialty grade, was treated like a commodity that could be stocked up, regardless of seasonality. The big players (importers and exporters) would do just this in an attempt to stabilize a market that could be so easily rocked by production woes. This practice inevitably lead to less of a focus on seasonal sourcing and more of a focus on establishing a bountiful surplus. An unforeseen victim from this stabilization was the smaller producer, who saw the value of his yearly crop rise and fall in such a dramatic way as to make farming less and less sustainable.
Eventually, conscientious buyers who saw this plight sought a way to prevent this exploitation through regulation. This was the beginning of the 'Fair Trade' agenda. And that is what the current certification stands for today. If you see the Fair Trade label, it is proof that the farmers were given, at least, a stabilized minimum price for their goods. In the context of coffee as a commodity, this seemed like a pretty good idea.
The problem here is that 'specialty coffee' is anything but a commodity.
The tension between conventional grade and specialty grade coffee is always evolving, but some advancements we have seen are absolutely here to stay. Coffee seasonality is something that all specialty buyers have become quite familiar with. Like anything else which is grown, there is a range of time from harvest which is known as 'fresh crop.' Consequently, there is no value in stocking a surplus. All specialty coffee needs to be sold within its window or it actually ceases to be specialty grade.
Ironically, specialty coffee origin practice has changed so quickly that prices are often not too low but too high. This seems like a crazy thing to say, so let us explain. The roaster and the farmer now both know what makes specialty coffee valuable. Many details need to align for that wonderful concert of terroir, genetics, and processing. The farms where these 'stars' align find repeatability in their success which is often rewarded by lasting relationships and direct sourcing. As producers innovate and increase value there is a cost in labor and other resources that must be transferred. Too often, the rate which prices increase at origin and the rate prices are rising on roasted bean shelves do not line up. Essentially, good coffee is too cheap for the end user, but bad coffee is still more expensive than it should be. Much of the product detail found on bags of specialty beans is an attempt to bridge this knowledge gap.
So, now what?
Ideally, all the margins and premiums would be completely transparent so we know who we are making rich or who we are keeping poor (in all trades, not just coffee!). In the absence of this knowledge, one thing we can do is find out about our purveyors' ethics and spending habits. Sickness attracts sickness, and if we know that a particular company takes care of their employees, for example, chances are they are working with folks on the other side of the industry who are taking care of theirs. We have to accept our limited perspective and do our best to support healthy commerce where we can see it. When we see people working hard, treating each other well and pursuing innovation, this should be where we spend our money. This kind of environment is always the fountainhead for all things quality: products, careers, and culture.
In conclusion, your best bet is always to simply buy what you love and be nice to the person selling it to you. As a specialty consumer, it is a given that your goal is not to buy something for the lowest price possible but to reward high craft with healthy commerce. There are purveyors and producers out there who share this ethos with you, you just need to believe they exist and find them. We would give up all the certifications in the world for a few (or even just one) of these relationships at our point of purchase. But before you can find that person, try to be that person.