What Do You Know About the Business Behind Your Coffee?

Posted: Fri. Nov 08, 2013

Fully Fair Trade Coffee Brands & How They’re Transforming the Industry

Coffee lovers are more interested in supporting fair trade than ever before, but it can be confusing to know which companies are really walking the walk. The good news is that these fully fair trade brands exist and are doing the most inspiring work with farmers—work that ultimately yields the best quality coffee and creates bright futures for all in the supply chain.

While buying fair trade certified coffee is a good start to supporting fair pay and workplace protection, keep in mind that good business across borders is about so much more than wages and safety. A coffee brand’s attitude about relationships reveals more about their values than a certification alone can capture.

When looking more critically at a coffee brand’s approach to fair trade, there are key practices to watch out for that demonstrate a full fair trade commitment, a genuine interest in sustaining farming communities, and assurance that your dollars back the kind of business you want to support.

A primary goal of enriching farmers and communities

The most impactful fair trade coffee brands have one main goal that drives their business: to make sure the lives of the farmers they work with are actually improved by their partnership.

Organic coffee roaster Dean’s Beans in Orange, MA was founded as an experiment on this very idea—“to see if business could be a force for positive social change,” says Michael Skillicorn, who oversees farmer relations at Dean’s Beans. “This means that we have to be 100% dedicated to the values of trade justice. When we practice fair trade, we are all in—we don’t operate with one set of values for one part of our business and then operate with another set of values for the other.”

These values include forming mutually beneficial relationships with cooperatives that extend beyond basic business exchanges and encourage growth for farmers—prioritizing community development, fair wages, and better access to markets with fewer middle men. This is a rare practice in the coffee industry, where brands don’t often work directly with farmers and tend to hold an unfair majority of the decision-making and price-setting power.

“We stick with it because it seems the experiment is working,” says Skillicorn. “We’ve been able—for 20 years now—to build and maintain relationships with farmer cooperatives, trade equitably with them, and develop small-scale grassroots development projects in the farming communities.”

Emphasis on transparency

When forming stable partnerships, transparency is a necessary part of making sure neither side of the supply chain is harmed or deceived—including coffee drinkers who care about where their coffee is coming from.

For Cooperative Coffees—a green coffee importing cooperative that supplies roasters all over the country—transparency is the key to what makes their business work so well. “Fair trade networks like the Fair Trade Federation, the World Fair Trade Organization, or FLO place transparency as a crucial point on the list of essential fair trade standards,” says Monika Firl, Communications and Projects Manager at Cooperative Coffees.

Co-op Coffees even utilizes an online system that tracks every order they make with cooperatives. With this system, buyers and coffee drinkers alike can look up how much coffee has been purchased and what was paid for each batch. “This kind of transparency allows for a true partnership based on trust,” says Firl. “This is the foundation of our business and our commitment to fair trade.”

An interest in helping farmers to build financial and economic growth

Organizations that say they focus on capacity building want independence for their partners and progress in poverty alleviation.

“Capacity building means growers can eventually produce greater yields and higher quality coffee. This way they are not dependent on us to purchase their coffee, but they can sell more of it to anyone for a good price,” says Kim Lamberty, President at Just Haiti Coffee.

Capacity building strengthens a cooperative’s leadership and organizational skills, she continues, so that the group contributes to civil society. “A strong civil society leads to a stronger democracy… this approach has effects way beyond just coffee.”

The cooperative is then able market their coffee—both locally and for export—so that they create a thriving domestic market that creates local jobs. “This leads to overall economic improvement in the areas where we work. It’s a long-term plan that will help to reduce poverty. Band aid solutions and charitable assistance don’t actually address the root causes of poverty the way capacity building does.”

Respect for the environment

When a business grows, so does its impact on local and global environments. Part of what doing good business means is taking steps towards reducing that impact in long term.

Peace Coffee in Minneapolis, MN takes a unique approach to reducing their footprint by making all of their coffee deliveries by bicycle. “We just visited the PANGOA Cooperative in Peru,” says Sam Timmreck, one of the “Bean Pedalers” at Peace Coffee in Minneapolis, MN. “I saw all the work farmers put in to growing their coffee. It’s a lot of hand labor and it’s a lot of stewardship of their farms and the land.”

Bike delivery is Peace Coffee’s way of applying that same stewardship to their own community. “By cutting down on driving, we’re using practical, small-scale skills and tools to get the job done. And it’s way more fun for us!”

Creating a force for change by educating coffee drinkers

Of course, none of these initiatives work well unless shoppers understand the value of fully fair trade businesses and look for brands that create real relationships. This is where education plays a key role in developing a market for products.

Equal Exchange has practiced fair trade for 27 years—investing a lot into “removing the walls that separate people from the folks who grow their food,” says Rodney North, “The Answer Man” at Equal Exchange. “A huge part of this effort has been in sharing stories from the farming communities around the world. Between our website and our blog there are literally hundreds of stories, articles, profiles, and interviews with thousands of farmers we work with in over 25 countries.”

Removing this veil is important if fair trade is going to grow. “Fair trade is not, and never has been, just about what price was paid to a farmer,” North continues. “That is only one element… As long as that veil remains, people will remain unaware of the serious social and ecological corners that are cut to keep food artificially cheap. Through education we remove that barrier. When folks know more they care more—and when they care more, their behavior changes. This is how progress can be made.”


The Fair Trade Federation screens businesses to ensure a deep commitment to fair trade. Find fully fair trade businesses in your area here. Discover more fully fair trade coffee brands: Singing Rooster, Level Ground Trading, Larry’s Beans, Higher Grounds Trading, Earth Friendly Coffee Company, Café Justo, Cafe Campesino, Distribution Solidaire, and Bean North Coffee Roasting.



Photo: Chris Treter of Higher Grounds Trading and Jose Perez Vazquez from the Maya Vinic cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico share a high-five. Higher Grounds has purchased coffee from Maya Vinic for the past eleven years. (In fact, theirs was the very first coffee Higher Grounds imported.) Photograph by Chelsea Bay Dennis for the feature length documentary Connected By Coffee.


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