My first experience with fair-trade coffee was in college. As a theology major at a small Bible College, our classroom debates often spilled out into the halls. On one such occasion, as we were debating the dynamic of actions-and-beliefs, a classmate of mine gestured at the mug in my hand. “You probably have no idea that the coffee you bought just killed someone.” Horrified (mostly on the assault at my precious Starbucks), I was dumbfounded. How could a innocent cup of coffee perform such wanton acts of violence? I don’t remember what I said next, but I’m sure it was quite brilliant. I do remember my coffee accuser explaining to me about market dynamics, cost-equity and something to do with purchasing power that left me numb and with a headache. I also remember a question hovering amid the fog of quoted numbers and statistics: Where does my coffee come from?
I knew you couldn’t grow it in your backyard’s compost pile. I knew it came mostly from South America. I knew that if you mixed it with pumpkin you could get this. I didn’t know that it was the second most traded consumer product behind oil.
God desires that we use our own wealth to not only provide charity for others, but to help them get out of poverty in the first place. Poverty operates cyclically. Poor people in desperation drastically undersell their products. A lack of economic development results in decreased health, which drives productivity lower. This spiral is further exploited by the rich who can use their purchasing power to drive the costs lower because, honestly, who doesn’t want to get the best deal possible? It’s far more complicated than this, but if you want to know more, you can go here. What matters is that this isn’t a new idea, it’s been around since the days of Moses, Jacob and all those wacky guys from the Old Testament. In Leviticus, God instructs his people to return land they have bought back to their original owners every seven years. This keeps people from being enslaved to the greed of others, and shows that God values people working themselves out of poverty, not just charity. When fair conditions exist the poor don’t need to stay poor. They can work to make their lives better.
Fair-trade provides a way for farmers to set a fair-market price for their product. By allowing a larger portion of the sale to go back to the farmers directly, fair-traded goods help not only farmers provide a better life for themselves and their families but also allows them to invest more capital into their farms and houses. This provides higher quality goods, driving their market value higher. It is in a sense about not allowing market forces from outside mangers drive the cost of coffee. This simple but profound shift allows for direct benefits to the farmers but also to their neighborhoods and communities. By helping people through their own business ventures, they grow sustainable income that breaks the cyclical nature of poverty. They get better lives, we get better coffee. Everyone wins!
I’m proud that we serve exclusively fair-trade coffee at Westheights provided courtesy of Baden Coffee Company. We want not only our words but our actions to build beautiful communities; not just in Kitchener, but around the world. We get better coffee on Sundays and we know that we’re helping to change people’s situations for the better. By serving fair-trade coffee we’ve found a simple way to help a lot of people. It’s just one little thing, but in the same way that grains of sand make up a beach, little things can add up.
Good idea and good article. I appreciate the way you have helped us understand the people and their lives that are affected by our coffee purchases.
I’m also appreciative of the fact that we use fair trade coffee at Westheights.
Great post, Tom. I’m personally glad we use fair trade coffee at Westheights. Like you said, it may be a small thing, but small things add up.