How Ethical is Your Cup of Coffee?


Little Owl Coffee in Denver, Colorado (from Sprudge)

Coffee: it’s the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning. I’m sure I’m not the only one that has this exact thought. That enticing smell that emerges as the coffee brews immediately awakens me from whatever zombie-induced slump that’s still leftover from not having adequate enough sleep. Whether it be the Green Siren or an independent coffee shop, coffee is everywhere. We have the convenience to get that precious cup of liquid fuel at almost any corner, in any city, in any state (you get the point, coffee is everywhere, including your boozy drinks). But do we ever stop to think where our coffee comes from? What the processes are to harvest and roast the coffee? How buying this luxury commodity benefits the farmers themselves? Does buying Fair Trade coffee even help?


Steadbrook, a Denver based menswear retail store that also houses MiddleState, a coffee shop and roastery (from Cargo Collective)

Fair Trade Certified products work directly with the people who are producing products, cutting out the middleman while ensuring an equal wage paid, and encouraging a sense of transparency along with promoting equality and sustainability. This is great, but in theory: coffee farmers in Latin America get paid only once a year. This payment happens as soon as the farmers are able to sell their beans – only this singular payment for farmers and their families to rely on in the off season of coffee farming until the new harvest. The money stretches thin as this period also coincides with, not only preparing to do the work for the new harvest, but also with the rainy season where prices for food naturally rises. The fancy labels of “Direct Trade” or “Shade Grown” can fool consumers into thinking that this product is the most ethically, purest sustainable coffee. But those are just labels that are for marketing purposes. What consumers should be looking for are actual certification labels: “Fair Trade” and “Rainforest Alliance”. There has to be the consideration that even when there are measures implemented to try to make sure that there is no middleman and equality when trading these products, it’s not always the case that farmers are living a better life. And it’s not just in Latin America where farmers are not getting adequate wage: farmers in Ethiopia and Uganda are experiencing the same problem.

So how can this problem be alleviated? A deep structural change where conventional thinking is challenged? This isn’t saying that Fair Trade is awful. In fact, this will help the numerous fair trade organizations make drastic improvements. Fair Trade coffee has seen sales increase by 8% in 2013 to 2014. Not only have sales increased, but this also helps widen the door for other alternative forms of ethical trading to be created. In fact, there are some organizations that are banding together and helping, such as creating funding for farmers to plant small subsistence gardens where crops can be harvested during the off season. The Specialty Coffee Association of America, or SCAA, holds an annual meeting where there are forums on coffee production, fair wages, the increasing cost of coffee and sustainability (aka Fair Trade) are discussed. With the coffee industry growing more aware of seasonal food insecurity, there can only be hope that the gap between growers and organizations can be closed and a connectedness can be established.


Sources: ; ; ; ;

Pictures: Sprudge Denver ; Cargo Collective 




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3 responses to “How Ethical is Your Cup of Coffee?

  1. amyquandt

    Were you able to read anything directly from coffee farmers about fair trade? Do they feel that it is a better system for themselves?


  2. Awesome read!
    there is one thing though that I didn’t quite get and that is what are you suggesting that the solution is? You say: ” In fact, this will help the numerous fair trade organizations make drastic improvements.”, but I am not quite sure what you mean by the “this”.

    also, I have a friend that is trying to tackle this problem as well, he and some friends created this company called Bean Voyage! and they went to Costa Rica (and I think other countries as well) to talk to some coffee bean growers and are selling their products through their site: , directly from the farmer to you! they also see a problem in that many coffee companies (like Starbucks) that they buy the green bean and the company then roasts and processes it so that the coffee they sell is consistent. well, I could go on with this, but you can check out their site! 🙂

    thank’s for bringing this issue up, it is important to think of the things we do everyday and how they affect the world an other people.


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