Fair Trade Coffee vs. Free Market Coffee

fair trade coffeeWalking up to the coffee bar, a middle-aged man asked for a cup of coffee. The young gal behind the counter asked, “For an extra dollar, you can feel good by supporting the poor farmers with our special fair trade coffee”?  He simply said, “No thanks, the regular will be fine.” Then she asked, “For just an extra quarter, you can have that in a racial-diverse, gender-neutral, bio-degradable, cup.” Exasperated he said, “Miss, all I want is a cup of coffee!”    With that, she yelled to the barista, “One Tall Naked Nazi please!”

Free Market CoffeeLiberal Coffee

Granted, this story is hypothetical, but it’s illustrative of a few points. First of all, the coffee industry is over-the-top liberal. Read any of the literature from any of the big industrial coffee companies and you’ll find it replete with liberal trigger words like inclusive, tolerant, sustainable, transparent, gender equal, traceable, global friendly, environmental, bio-diverse, mother nature, etc. Each company is trying to out-do their competitors by appearing more humanitarian than everyone else.

Controlling Supply

Coeur d'Alene Whole Bean CoffeeSo, how did all this craziness get so concentrated into one industry? Well, it all started with the fair trade coffee movement in the 70’s and 80’s. Its original purpose was to increase the wages and profits of the poor coffee farmers. On the surface it sounded like a noble cause.  In reality, what kicked this movement off was a couple years of back-to-back whole bean coffee shortages.  In an attempt to control supply, the big industrial coffee companies imposed fair trade coffee certification upon its growers.  Obviously, that didn’t help the farmers one bit.  I think it’s fair to say, to use socialism to accomplish capitalistic ends, never works.

Here we are over 40 years later and wherever fair trade coffee organizations exist, the middlemen and industrial coffee companies are making more money and the poor farmer is making less.  The few places this is not true is where independent coffee farmers have told the fair trade coffee people to buzz off.

Costa Rican Coffee Farmers

Costa Rican Coffee

The funny thing is, the coffee farmers that I’ve met are not ignorant, uneducated, or dependent on social programs.  And they sure as hell aren’t liberal. In reality, they’re down right capitalists, business-men and business-women, trying to scratch out a living like the rest of us. They understand the law of supply and demand.

Case in point; Frank is one of our growers and owner of Vista Al Valle, a small and very successful coffee farm in the Tarrazu region of Costa Rica.   I asked Frank if he was Fair Trade Certified? Frank asked, “Certified with which fair trade coffee organization?” Apparently, there are a number of fair trade organizations; Fair Trade International, Fair Trade USA, TransFair USA, Fair Trade EU, World Fair Trade Organization, and Starbucks own loosely self-certified in-house standards, a.k.a. “what’s best for Starbucks is best for everyone”.

Free Market Coffee

Travel CoffeeInstead of helping the farmers, fair trade coffee costs the farmers way too much money to get certified.  The bottom line is that fair trade doesn’t help the farmers in the least.  The only ones benefiting from fair trade are the large industrial coffee companies.   It’s no surprise that more and more coffee farmers like Frank, want nothing to do with Fair Trade.

Producers and consumers alike will always benefit best from a free market vs. any socialistic programs like Fair Trade Coffee.


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