What’s in Your Coffee Cup? (Fair Trade and Brewing Justice)

A cortado please, my order rolls off my tongue before I even get a chance to look at the menu. While waiting for my coffee, I find a table to settle down in and take out my coffee house necessities: journal, pen, headphones, and a book. My order is called and I picked it up, sat back down and took the first sip. The café has coffee mugs and records filling the shelves, as well as the café’s merchandise and packaged coffee beans. As I sit amidst the other coffee drinkers in the café and stare at the leaf in the foam of my cortado, the complexity surrounding the politics and economy of coffee did not occur to me at this moment, but after reading Brewing Justice by Daniel Jaffee I’ve learned that coffee has such a rich story that begins in the fields of hard-working farmers who are making less per day than we pay for a cup of coffee.

brewing justice c university of california press
Univ. of California Press

The book presents a study of two indigenous coffee producing villages in Oaxaca, Mexico and also a broader analysis of the fair trade system and movement. Brewing Justice readily reflects Jaffee’s research concentration by examining the international fair trade system, with its benefits and limitations of participation as an alternative model of economic exchange.

There are four main arguments in Brewing Justice:

  1. Fair trade has benefited the Mexican producers and their families by delivering social, economic, and environmental benefits
  2. Fair trade is an international movement with a wide range of actors, however, between all the participants there is not a common understanding of the purpose and nature of fair trade and it’s relation to the global market.
  3. If fair trade cannot exert tight control over its corporate participants, who are necessary because they boost demand for the product, the movement is at risk of diluting its core values and alter the terms of trade.
  4. The market cannot be depended on solely to eliminate poverty or redistribute wealth, instead, the market must use its profits for “socially positive functions”, the market must also collaborate with nation states and other global institutions in order to reach the larger goal of a socially just economy.

There are definitely problems to address when analyzing fair trade as an alternative model to the current system in place.

I found myself thinking about a case study on Starbucks and their “commitment” to fair trade in the chapter “Dancing with the Devil”. At the beginning of the book, Jaffee quotes Seattle Times reporter Jake Batsell, as he reports on the rallies at Western Washington University where students are demanding that the on-campus Starbucks stock fair trade coffee. “It is easy activism,” Batsell states, “[the students] can simply choose to buy coffee that bears the fair-trade certified label – or not to buy it if it doesn’t”.

This is an example of voting with your dollar, consumer demands are generally what controls the market. In the case of fair trade, large corporations such as Starbucks do not have to pay more out of their pockets to switch to fair trade coffee. So why is their reluctance to switch to fair trade, or carry fair trade coffee? It is because large corporations will have to completely reconfigure their business structure in order to carry these products; “first, switching to fair trade … would entail … altering relationships with exporters and middlemen in producer countries. Second, being locked into specific stances and practices is undesirable…” for corporations it is necessary to be fickle because they have to be able to switch to another product quickly if fair trade is no longer in demand. Even though these farmers in the villages of Oaxaca are working hard to produce fair trade coffee, it ultimately is up to the consumers to demand the products of these farmers in order to sustain the economic benefits of fair trade.

Jaffee also states, “fairness is only on flavor among several carefully positioned niche products…”. This quote resonated with me. Currently, fair trade is a part of a system where it is just one option for consumers. This leaves an open ended question of how can fair trade be incorporated into the system where it is not only a tool of the market but the actual model? Why isn’t fair trade currently the norm?

There obviously has to be a collaboration with nation states and global institutions, but I also believe that people as consumers should be held responsible as well.

With this responsibility, there must be a level of increasing education on where products come from and how it is produced. We are distant from the producer and distribution level of the supply chain, only exposed to the retail level. As Jaffee explains, citizen vigilance is necessary. As consumers, we vote with our dollar, and through activism, we can hold corporations responsible for their actions and also create a demand for “fairness” for all the actors in the market.

Jaffee has nine recommendations in order to move fair trade in a stronger and fairer direction:

  1. Adjust the base price of fair trade coffee
  2. Revisit the allocation of benefits
  3. Reduce the entry barriers into fair trade cooperatives
  4. Address the high demands of organic certification
  5. Address the balance of power within fair trade
  6. Protect fair trade against dilution of values and co-optation
  7. Deal with difference over relationship to the market
  8. Strengthen links to the global justice movements
  9. Clarify the goals of fair trade

If you don’t feel like reading the book, check out this documentary El Cacao. It’s a documentary about cacao farming instead of coffee beans but it still addresses the complex issues of fair trade! This is the trailer, and I accessed the documentary here, it’s free for students! 

Note: Brewing Justice, personally, could at times be heavy on the data and evidentiary research parts, but in the end, I find that the data was necessary in order to come to his recommendation for the fair trade movement to grow in the global economic market. I would say that fair trade definitely has its benefits, but I would like to preface this statement by also acknowledging that fair trade must remain true to its initial values and goals. There is a possibility that the fair trade movement could move into a mainstream, profit-oriented model, but as Jaffee concludes there must be improvements made to the movement in order to push for higher standards of livings for the people fair trade was created to help.




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