I’ll be upfront with you, as a college student struggling through finals while maintaining a part-time job as a barista, I’m convinced that my veins pump more coffee than blood through my body. Starting my day with four shots and then stopping for a mid-day coffee has become (an unfortunate) routine. I know that I’m not the only one who spends an absurd amount of their budget on coffee, but it is something that the majority of us consume without thinking much about it. Not only do we ignore how addicted we are to it, but we also forget to consider where our coffee comes from. Some of us have heard of different Fair Trade certifications, but what does that really mean when it comes to the beans in our drinks?
It’s important to understand why taking a deeper, more conscious look into the coffee industry is vital. First of all, it’s delicious, but more importantly, it is a huge industry within developing nations. Out of the 2.25 billion cups of coffee consumed each day worldwide, over 90% of them were produced in South America, and most consumers are from the Global North.
With such a high demand for coffee beans, it’s not surprising that there is a huge supply of jobs on coffee farms. What might be surprising to some of you is how much exploitation and corruption hides in such a massive industry. For some countries, (looking at you, Brazil), slavery and coffee go hand-in-hand as historically, farmers would use slaves to pick beans. Even now, many families are exploited, often held captive through debt bondage. To avoid labor laws, children are seen as working for their parents rather than the farm owner which exposes them to 8-10 hours in the field daily. This is dangerous due to all of the sun, poisonous agrochemicals, heavy lifting and other sharp tools that could be harmful to them in development. These children often come from families experiencing poverty who are desperate for whatever income they are able to find. This means that when the coffee industry is thriving, these workers are likely to experience more exploitation and poor working conditions as the farmers fight to maximize the amount of coffee produced. When the coffee industry is not doing as well, these are also the people most vulnerable to even more extreme levels of poverty.
"Out of the 2.25 billion cups of coffee consumed each day worldwide, over 90% of them were produced in South America, and most consumers are from the Global North."
While it can be devastating to hear how prevalent exploitation is in one of my favorite industries, there is hope in the different certifications that coffee farms receive to show the efforts they are making to provide living wages and fair working conditions to their farmers. I’ve noticed many different Fair Trade labels, and even a Rainforest Alliance label, and have wondered what these actually mean and how they are helping expose and prevent exploitative labor.
First and foremost, cutting out the middleman is always a good way to start. At the coffee shop where I work, each bag not only shares the name of the country of origin, but also the city and the farm where the beans come from. This reinforces that the brand of coffee we brew is intentional about knowing where their coffee comes from, and knows who is working to provide us with our product. The beans go from the farm to our supplier and then to us. While this seems ideal, it is not a requirement of Fair Trade coffee. Fair Trade really only enforces a “price floor,” which means that the beans have to be sold at a minimum price to ensure the farm makes enough money to provide acceptable wages to the workers. While this would be great in theory, what it tends to do is encourage the farmers to sell the lower quality beans as Fair Trade, (not every bean can be top quality, because they know they will be able to sell it at a reasonable price. This then allows them to sell their top quality beans on the market for as high a price as possible because these beans are truly worth it.
The Rainforest Alliance is another reputable certification that focuses on the management of the coffee farms rather than on the wages the farmers are making. Their seal highlights sustainable agriculture along with social responsibility and integrated pest management. This is a model that tries to get closer to the root of the problem of farms fueled by exploitation rather than just offering more financial support. Critics of Fair Trade certified coffee argue that energy is better spent focusing on better healthcare, education and infrastructure to areas of poverty which is closer to what the Rainforest Alliance is doing.
I will not be able to stop drinking coffee anytime soon, nor should any of us have to. However, by ensuring that we are all properly informed on where our coffee comes from, what the different labels and certifications mean, and the potential for exploited labor, we can direct our demand towards beans that are truly ethically sourced rather than towards what is the cheapest option. As long as we keep unconsciously consuming, however, the coffee industry will be able to thrive off of slavery. If we create enough demand for truly fair products, farmers will be encouraged to improve their methods.
National Coffee Day is on September 29th. Before ordering that latte or flat white, ask your barista where their beans come from. Or check out these Rainforest Alliance certified coffees and teas. Whatever you choose to do, we encourage you to make the decision in your personal life to buy coffee that is ethically sourced and produced.
This year, do something different. Take on the Dressember style challenge and pledge to wear a dress or tie every day in December. You'll challenge yourself, learn more about the issue of human trafficking and have a viable impact on those trapped in slavery around the world.
Registration opens October 1st, 2018
About the Author
Ali Pollard is a winter gal at heart who loves trying new things and traveling to new places. When she's not finishing her homework or consuming absurd amounts of coffee, she loves skiing and playing the saxophone. Ali is hoping to turn her passion for human rights into a career as she studies the sociology of law, criminology, and deviance (yes, that's all one major!) and political science at the University of Minnesota.