Tue. Jan 25th, 2022

West Chester University students and staff were invited to learn more about the benefits and downfalls of fair trade coffee on Wednesday afternoon in Sykes Student Union. The program was part of a special Civility Day seminar, “How Free and Fair is Your Coffee?,” presented by a panel of four WCU professors.

The panel consisted of Paul Arsenault, associate professor of marketing; Dorothy Ives-Dewey; assistant professor of history; Linda Stevenson, associate professor of political science and Tia Malkin-Fontecchio, assistant professor of history. Ives-Dewey began the presentation by introducing those in attendance to the long global history of coffee.

Coffee is one of the most important natural commodities for worldwide trade, second only to crude oil. And while Brazil is the number one exporter for coffee beans, coffee is such a commodity that 30 million people across the planet earn their incomes through the coffee industry. Ives-Dewey noted that some think coffee played a role in the industrial revolution by increasing the alertness and productivity of workers in factories.

While most people are familiar with the popularity of coffee, not many understand where the money for their cup of joe is going. Ives-Dewey broke down how much of a $2.80 cup of coffee goes back to a farmer who harvested the beans. Consumers may only pay $2.80, but $1.07 of that goes right back to the retailer. The number keeps getting smaller, until only 0.024 cents of that cup of coffee is left. That’s what goes to the farmer.

It’s not just the farmers of coffee beans who are being compromised, either, according to the panel. Growing coffee can be environmentally destructive. The intensive farming of coffee beans grown in the sun requires the clearing of forests. With no shade and densely packed fields full of pesticides, the soil is being robbed of its nutrients.

Habitats filled with diverse plants and animals are at risk of being destroyed. “The Atlantic Forest in Brazil,” Malkin-Fontecchio said, “which was once thought to be more diverse than the Amazon, is now gone as a result of coffee bean farming.”

Not surprisingly, many java junkies don’t agree with this. Fair Trade Certified coffee has become increasingly popular in recent years with consumers who care about who is being helped and who is being exploited by coffee consumption. International fair trade criteria must be met in order for a product to be fair trade certified by TransFair USA, the only independent, third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the United States.

Guaranteed minimum prices to producers and fair wages for laborers are enforced in an effort to make sure those who produce the coffee can actually live off their income. Fair Trade Certified products also aim to advance payment to farmers in order to have enough money between harvests.

To preserve the environment where coffee is produced, producers of Fair Trade Certified products must also provide documentation of environmentally sustainable farming practices. There’s a huge push for organic farming, as well.

If the criterion is met, Fair Trade tells consumers that the fair prices will end poverty and empower people. While this sounds great, Malkin-Fontecchio wants to alert people that right now, the criterion aren’t fulfilling those things. Trying to meet this criteria can actually be more expensive for farmers because of fees for inspection and certification.

While fair trade farmers often do make more money, it’s not by much. In fact, they’re usually only breaking even for production. “It’s important to be realistic,” Malkin-Fontecchio said. “We need to strengthen it to make it work.” She suggests that a raised base price of coffee would continue to benefit farmers, and guarantee a set retail price of coffee that cannot be altered.

The panelists, while supporting Fair Trade, wanted students to be more aware of exactly what the term means. Taking steps towards improving Fair Trade criterion and conditions, as well as bringing more Fair Trade products on campus, are all achievable goals through understanding where our coffee money goes to.

Ashley Toal is a second-year student with a minor in journalism. She can be reached at AT628940@wcupa.edu.

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