Looking beyond coffee

For a fairer global trade regime, ‘coffee is just the beginning’

Jane Kirby, ArtSci ’07
Jane Kirby, ArtSci ’07

University students are reported to drink an average of three cups of coffee daily.

Given this statistic, it’s perhaps unsurprising that interest in the fair trade movement on campuses across Canada has focused on coffee. Students have increasingly come to demand a fair trade certified coffee product. Like many other commodities, world prices for coffee are often far too low to support the livelihoods of coffee producers in the global South.

The primary aim of the fair trade movement is to give farmers a fair price for their product, while supporting socially and ecologically sustainable farming practices. This is typically achieved by cutting out the middleman, which has the advantage of ensuring stability in what is typically a volatile market.

In the past, the price of free trade coffee has dropped to as low as $0.41 per pound. In contrast, fair traded coffee gives farmers $1.26 per pound for their product. If market prices rise above this floor price, farmers are paid $0.05 above the market price.

Recognizing the heightened student interest in fair trade coffee, both the Tea Room and Common Ground have made it a part of their mandate to supply exclusively fair trade coffee.

Last year, Queen’s Food Services worked with Queen’s Project on International Development to adopt a fair trade purchasing policy that made fair trade coffee an option at all their food outlets.

The shift towards a fair trade coffee product is clearly an achievement that Queen’s can be proud of. However, interest in the fair trade movement should not stop at coffee. The production processes of many commodities involve similarly exploitative trading relationships.

TransFair Canada, the organization responsible for certifying fair trade products, currently recognizes products as diverse as fresh flowers, bananas and rice.

There is some evidence that awareness of diverse fair trade products is expanding.

Queen’s Oxfam opened its fair trade store on campus last fall, which sells a variety of fair trade products at reasonable prices. However, campus coffee shops have been reluctant to expand their fair trade product lines beyond coffee, despite the fact that fair trade tea, sugar and cocoa are now widely available.

Neither the Tazo nor Mighty Leaf lines of tea carried by the Common Ground and the Tearoom, respectively, are fair trade certified. This hesitance to adopt a fair trade tea product has been explained on the grounds that the product lines of fair trade teas lack the variety offered by brands currently used.

Although this may be true to some extent, this is certainly not an excuse for not making a few fair trade tea options available to concerned students. This argument also doesn’t explain why these establishments don’t use fair trade products like sugar or cocoa, where product diversity isn’t an issue. It’s often assumed that fair trade products are more expensive than their free trade counterparts.

Even if this were the case, remedying the social justice concerns surrounding the production of coffee should be enough to justify any small decrease in profit margins.

Furthermore, this assumption is often entirely false. Because fair trade often involves cutting out the middleman, farmers can be paid more without increasing the cost to consumers. Many fair trade teas can be purchased at a lower cost than either Tazo or Mighty Leaf teas.

Policies promoting social justice and sustainability have formed an ostensible part of the appeal of
these establishments. The Tearoom, in particular, has made being a leader in this field a top priority.

Without a firm commitment to a broad spectrum of fair trade products, however, these claims become dubious. Although offering fair trade coffee was a necessary first step, these establishments must go above and beyond what has now come to be expected by the student body.

When it comes to working towards a fairer global trade regime, coffee is just the beginning.

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