Your Coffee Is Getting Fancier, But Is It Getting Better For The World?

Fair trade was left behind by our new, artisanal coffee shops. So now what’s the best way to tell if your caffeine fix is also fixing the planet?

Your Coffee Is Getting Fancier, But Is It Getting Better For The World?
[Photo: Flickr user Cazz]

“Steaming milk is a skill,” says Karen Cantor, co-founder of Chipped Cup Coffee, West Harlem’s first artisanal coffee shop.


“It actually really affects the taste,” she continues, her passion for crafting a latte clearly colored by her background in art history. “If you steam it to just the right temperature, and just the right consistency, it brings out this beautiful texture and sweetness.”

Cantor and co-founder Andrew Ding opened Chipped Cup in July 2012. “We were interested in adding value to the neighborhood,” Ding says, by trying to create a “community living room.” But as coffee culture becomes more and more refined, are coffee shops (and coffee drinkers) adding value to the rest of the world as they are to their neighborhoods?

Does good coffee make the world better?

Fair-Trade certified coffee has become known as an easy way for coffee drinkers to make the world a better place for coffee growers, many of whom are among the world’s poorest people. But a study released in April 2014 seriously questions how much fair-trade certification really does for them.

Limited to 12 research sites in Ethiopia and Uganda, the study found that non-fair-trade certified farms paid better wages and provided better working conditions than fair-trade certified farms. The study authors surveyed 1,700 farm workers, going beyond the usual farm owner or farming co-op member that has historically been the beneficiary at the heart of fair trade’s story.

“If you are interested in trying to make a difference in the lives of the very very poorest–the most poor–then you need to pay attention to wage labor,” says Christopher Cramer, one of the study co-authors.

So why are farm workers finding a better deal on non-fair-trade certified farms?


Scale could be one reason. Until recently, only small farms, loosely defined as 10 acres or less, have been eligible for fair-trade certification. The report says larger farms appeared to be in better financial position to offer higher pay, more annual days of work, and better working conditions. Regulatory requirements like paid maternity leave for agricultural workers may also apply only to larger farms, the study found.

Another reason, Cramer says, could be the growing global market for high-quality, specialty coffee—in the U.S. alone, it represents 37% of all cups of coffee consumed, thanks to Starbucks as well as to small, independent coffee shops like Chipped Cup. It’s a much larger market than the market for fair-trade certified coffee, and farmers are responding to that, with some unforeseen consequences.

Coffee farming can be as much an art as steaming milk for a latte, and when you treat it that way, it “generates both sustained, significantly higher prices paid for the coffee, more days of labor, and it seems probably to have filtered through into moderately better treatment of some of the workers,” Cramer says.

Direct Trade Versus Fair Trade

When Aida Batlle she took over her family’s 38-acre farm in El Salvador in 2002, it was too large for fair-trade certification, even though Batlle claims to pay her workers three times what everyone else is paying, plus transportation and food. After winning El Salvador’s inaugural Cup of Excellence competition in 2003, Aida became something of a celebrity in the “Third Wave” movement of coffee, even getting her own profile in the New Yorker.

One of Batlle’s longest-running buyers is Counter Culture Coffee, founded in 1995 in Durham, N.C. Ten years ago, Counter Culture was still mostly a smaller regional roasting company, trying to get a market foothold by handing out samples in grocery stores. Customers would ask why one coffee from Nicaragua was certified fair-trade and this other one from El Salvador (the coffee from Batlle’s farm) wasn’t. In reality, Batlle’s workers were among the highest paid of all of Counter Culture’s suppliers.

“The idea that this was somehow unfair because there’s no certification on it, no seal, was just maddening,” says Counter Culture Kim Elena Ionescu.


Those frustrations led Counter Culture to create their own, company-specific program, Counter Culture Direct Trade Certification, which Ionescu now oversees as Counter Culture’s Coffee Buyer and Sustainability Manager.

Direct trade emphasizes fully transparent, long-term relationships between farmers and roasting companies. While similar to other coffee roasting companies’ direct trade programs, like Intelligentsia and Stump Town Coffee Roasters, Counter Culture takes the extra step to employ a third-party certification company (the same company the USDA uses for organic certification) to audit their direct trade practices.

But direct trade isn’t quite an alternative to fair trade. “The biggest difference between direct trade as a certification and fair trade is that direct trade is only about Counter Culture,” Ionescu explains. “There’s no audit of farms. It’s really just an audit of Counter Culture’s business practices.”

If anything, fair trade and direct trade work better together. “It helps me sleep at night as the sustainability manager to know that so many of the smallholder cooperatives that we work with are fair-trade certified,” Ionescu says. She admitted that, in 2007, if fair-trade certification had a set of standards applicable to larger farms, Counter Culture may never have created their Direct Trade Certification.

The Future Of Fair Trade

About two and half years ago, Fair Trade USA, which certifies fair-trade products sold in the U.S., began to address the dual shortcomings of not certifying larger farms and not accounting for farm workers on larger farms as key beneficiaries of fair-trade certification.

“What we’ve done is apply the fair-trade standards, which include things like wages and working conditions, access to safety equipment, training, overtime pay, maternity leave–we’ve applied that to farm workers on large farms, and we’re starting to see some encouraging results,” says Mary Jo Cook, chief impact officer at Fair Trade USA.


Using mobile technology, Fair Trade USA recently started surveying workers about wages and working conditions on an ongoing basis in select locations. Cook expects they will be able to expand that.

Wages and working conditions are also just one part of the fair-trade story. Since Fair Trade USA opened its doors in 1998, fair-trade certified farmers and workers have received over $150 million in community development premiums, additional payments separate from the fair-trade certified price for their goods. Historically, farmer co-ops organized committees to vote on how to use those premiums. For larger, newly fair-trade-certified farms that are not part of co-ops, workers are creating their own worker committees that vote on how to use premiums.

Cook tells a story about a newly fair-trade-certified bell pepper farm in Mexico whose workers recently organized their committee, which voted to use premiums to set up a merit-based high school scholarship fund. “It was empowerment in action, which is really a cornerstone of the fair-trade model,” says Cook.

Fair-trade farmers are even using premiums to respond to the high-quality coffee market. When Cook visited fair-trade farmers in Costa Rica earlier this year, she learned that some have used fair-trade premiums to establish their own labs to find their coffee’s cupping score, which attempts to quantify a coffee’s specific characteristics. “If you as a farmer know your cupping score, then you have more power to negotiate with a buyer,” Cook explains.

Does good coffee really make the world better, even for the people that grow coffee? The answer might be to never stop asking the question. “If you’re interested in the relationship between the coffee that you’re going to buy and the conditions under which it’s produced,” Cramer says, “I think you do have to start asking suppliers more questions about how much they really know, how much they can really back up what it says on the tin.”

About the author

Oscar Perry Abello is a New York-based journalist writing about social justice and equity in cities, communities, finance and the economy. See more at