Only the value of oil exceeds that of coffee as an international commodity. Around the globe, an estimated 25 million people grow coffee or otherwise work in its processing, shipping, or sale. Unfortunately, much of the world's coffee plantations had their start centuries ago, long before the development of a global awareness of human rights, and a majority of people involved in growing the crop today live lives of poverty. The Fair Trade Coffee movement aims to change that unfortunate scenario.
The concept of Fair Trade had its start in the late 1950s with the development in the United States and Europe of so-called "alternative trade organizations" that aimed to buy food crops directly from local cooperatives of small-scale farmers in third world countries. By cutting out middlemen, ATOs were able to pay fairer prices to those people who actually grew the crops, enabling them to enjoy more living wages. Coffees grown and bought in this way were first certified as "Fair Trade" in Holland in the late 1980s, and the use of such certification programs has since spread to 17 different coffee-importing nations, including the United States in the late 1990s. Fair Trade coffee is now imported from countries across Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, and are marketed under more than 100 brands including Starbucks, Peet's, Tully's, Diedrich, Green Mountain, Equal Exchange, and Global Exchange.
The benefits of Fair Trade coffee extend beyond providing living wages alone. The cooperatives involved also dedicate themselves to improving health care and education among their populations. Fair Trade growers also commit not to use child labor or forced labor. They also tend to practice agricultural methods that safeguard the environment, preserving forests, making less use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and practicing mixed-crop agricultural methods that help conserve and replenish the topsoil. The increased incomes of Fair Trade agricultural participants also lead to greater economic independence for their nations.
When you buy Fair Trade coffee, note that the "Fair Trade Certified" or "Fair Trade Federation" label applies only to those products on which it actually appears. The presence of these labels does not mean that all coffees sold by that brand are necessarily Fair Trade products, although more and more companies every day are devoting themselves to Fair Trade and all the benefits it brings.