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Coffee for Fair Trade?

June 3, 2010

“It’s part of our commitment to doing business in ways that are good to each other, coffee farmers and our planet.” That’s what I read on the Starbucks cup sleeve that keeps you from burning your hands while enjoying your cup of deliciously made signature chocolate or freshly brewed caramel macchiato. While we are constantly having leftovers of food, excess water for bubble baths, and well-constructed electricity pipelines for our air conditioners and computers, people in less developed countries are living at the edge of starvation. And as we all know, most of the coffee producing countries lie beneath the poverty line, we would think the promotion of Fair Trade of coffee means a lot to them. But what do we consumers know about Fair Trade? How exactly does it work? We saw the occasional posters or TV ads about which company or charity organization is promoting Fair Trade and we say “oh good! Fair Trade helps!” Then what? I dare say none of us would bother to go do research on the issue unless there’s a report due this weekend or you have some article to hand in like me. (Just kidding.)

So I did. (I did it because I want to write something about it) According to the Fairtrade Foundation, Fair Trade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. Standards vary from country to country, but still compromise minimum economic, social and environmental requirements – so much for developing sustainably. Ideas are just words, let’s bring in some facts and figures. According to an article in Time Magazine Fair Trade pays US$1.55 per lb. for the organic coffee of a farmer in Guatemala, almost 10% more than the market price. But he is left with only US50¢ per lb. after paying Fair Trade cooperative fees, government taxes and farming expenses. In average, he only gets US$2.75 for a day, not even enough to buy the cheapest latte in Starbucks. In fact, they have to get more than US$2 per lb. in order to rise above subsistence. I’m just taking coffee as the example here, but note that there are farmers engaging in other kinds of agricultural productions that have yet to be approached for the sake of improving their own chances of making a living.

It is undeniable that the living standards of farmers participating in Fair Trade are higher, but with US$1.75 billion of world-wide sales against the US$70 billion global coffee industry last year, Fair Trade still has a long way to go. I am supposed to say something optimistic and encouraging here, but wait. With our own political and economic problems to tackle with, I really doubt that the so-called more developed countries would put much effort in this. They are being too realistic to cooperate and deal with the threatening problem of global warming, why would they engage in some campaign that would increase their costs and market prices, pushing away customers just for making the primary producers happy? Starbucks did because its world-wide chain stores could help covering the increase in expenses, while on the other hand polishing its image so as to give us the impression that even the coffee giant is doing good deeds. Well, you say it’s good deed if you didn’t notice that among the high prices, the farmers only receive less than 5%. So much for moral responsibilities.

Samantha Chan, 19, is a fresh graduate from Marymount Secondary School. When she’s not reading or writing, Samantha is watching movies. She dreams to work for the film industry one day. Her column Bite of Life is inspired by the tiniest bits of joy, laughter, frustration and anger in her life. Samantha hopes her articles will take readers to a calm, peaceful place.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2010 11:14 am

    Hi Samantha

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Although Fair Trade is far from perfect, I have first-handedly witnessed the impacts that it can make. In my opinion, as we probably all feel, this shouldn’t even been an issue. We are talking about labor rights and treating people in a civil and human matter. Unfortunately, a lot of people fail to take human rights into consideration.

    Spreading awareness and changing habits is a tough task we all have ahead of us…

    Kate Robertson
    Founder, Mayu (Members of the Fair Trade Federation)

    • samanthac permalink
      June 18, 2010 1:52 pm

      Hi Kate

      Thanks for the comment.
      Of course fair trade is helping the people. I don’t have a doubt about that and I know it’s far from realistic to expect it to work with 100% efficiency.
      I would also like to contribute to the promotion of the importance of human rights by raising the awareness among our generation, especially in HK, that it’s a blessing to live in a society where such rights are well defined and enforced.
      We do have a long way to go.


  2. Daniel permalink
    June 3, 2010 8:24 pm


    Where are those figures from?


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