Question: What are the advantages of fair trade coffee?

Answer: Coffee is one of the world’s most commonly consumed beverages—roughly 400 billions of cups a day. By one estimate, coffee is the second most important commodity traded on the (legal) global marketplace. But what is fair trade coffee?

Not long ago, while in Oaxaca, Mexico, my host, a professor at the University of Kentucky, told me of his friendship with a coffee grower in the hills on the road to Benito Juárez. The grower’s farm, like many coffee farms, was small and his profits scant because the product of his labor was at the mercy of corporate coffee buyers. The more they control the market, the less they pay.

My host, as he told the story, proposed that he and the grower set up a small business venture. The professor would purchase coffee beans at a fair price, and bring them personally into the United States where he would offer the beans for sale to independent coffee merchants in his college town. The grower was willing, but dubious. Experience had taught him that the plan was unlikely to work. Indeed it did not.

The American professor soon discovered that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was made to serve not the local farmers but the multinational corporations—in this case, coffee buying conglomerates. Small-scale growers and entrepreneurs are not free to ship small allotments of their product across the border.

Free trade agreements are advertised as liberal mechanisms that promise free-market opportunities and economic benefits across international borders. Yet, since NAFTA was established in 1994, neither Mexican workers nor coffee growers have benefited from it—nor, it seems, have workers in the United States. This is neo-liberalism at its insidious worst—good for the wealthy corporations, bad for workers and farmers on the economic margins.

Fair trade practices are not the same thing as NAFTA and other neo-liberal free trade accords. The fair trade movement has grown significantly in the spirit of the World Social Forum—the global social movement begun in 2001 in Porto Alegre to promote social justice against the injustices of neo-liberal hypocrisies.

Many of us have shopped in Ten Thousand Villages stores that offer fairly traded gifts and decorative household goods crafted in all corners of the world. Similarly, the fair trade coffee movement acts through NGOs to insure local coffee growers a fair market price for their products as well as other benefits, including gender equality among workers and environmental protections.

Fair trade, when it works, is an effective resistance movement limiting the economic avarice of corporations that use free trade market agreements to their advantage. Yet, fair trade works against the odds. Starbucks sells fair-traded coffee. This is good.

But Starbucks is a multinational corporation with 15,000 stores in 42 countries and nearly 150,000 employees. It buys more than 300 million pounds of coffee a year—of which only six percent is fairly traded. Visit the Starbucks website and you can find an upbeat statement of its ethical commitments to fair trade and other social programs.

But look down most main streets and you will see that Starbucks, like another Seattle corporate giant, does business according to neo-liberal principles. They too deploy tactics made infamous by Wal-Mart—driving independent competitors out of business in order to dominate local markets. In New Haven, where I live, there are two Starbucks shops within a few blocks of each other. The newest is clearly meant to drive local coffee retailers out of business. So far, two independents have folded, with others likely to follow.

Fair trade coffee is a good thing. But it faces long odds against free-trade giants like Starbucks. Buy fair trade by all means, but buy it and enjoy it at an independent coffee shop.

The long march against the market giants begins with a single cup. In fact, in Mao’s China people protested the presence of a Starbucks coffee shop inside the ancient Forbidden City Palace of the Ming and Ch’ing dynasties. When I was last there, the shop was open. Now it is closed.

Perhaps somewhere another will yield to local protest—especially now that the Starbucks Corporation is facing a business reversal. Corporate giants are what they are. It is very hard these days to avoid a Microsoft or Exxon product.

But, if you want to be fair, you can choose to buy fairly traded coffee locally even when a Starbucks is so convenient. Do as I say, not as I did when I was in Beijing.

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