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I currently try to purchase fair trade coffee, since it at least comes with a policy of attempting to be...well...fair to the producers. However, just because a coffee is not fair trade doesn't mean that it isn't fair, and there are some coffee plantations that I've heard of that do better than the fair trade standard but don't go for the official certification.

Are there any brands that are:

a. cheaper than fair trade b. as ethical/better from both a human and environment standard?

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The major standards are a bit confusing honestly. Fair trade provides a baseline above the commodities rates, but they don't ensure that the farmer is getting the most for their product. Furthermore, the farm has to be able to be certified for conforming to certain environmental conditions prior to being certified. Many coffee farmers are so far off the beaten path that they simply cannot afford to be certified. I believe that conscientious importers provide a far better compensation to the farmer.

It looks like Fair Trade assures something between 15 and 35 cents above commodities rates. This is far below what a roaster will pay for specialty grade coffee. While fair trade is a good baseline, if you purchase specialty coffee, you are most likely buying coffee that was purchased for significantly better than fair trade rates. To give you an idea.. I pulled up a random invoice I had in my inbox and it was $1.70 above commodities rate. Furthermore, importers provide on the ground support to farmers in the form of varietal education and recommendations, disease prevention, washing technique improvements, all of which net the farmer tangible benefits because their coffee will improve in quality, and thus, sell for more.

So.. if you are looking for good ethical compensation for farmers, I would say look for local specialty roasteries. These roasteries are purchasing high quality coffee from a high quality importer which means that there are people on the ground helping farmers achieve better quality, and thus better compensation.

The link below is a pretty interesting article from a greens buyer I am thinking about working with. I found it a very interesting read that gave some insight into what importers actually do, and highlights why a lot of coffee farms are not certified..

40 hours in the life of a greens buyer

I know this explanation doesn't directly answer your question, but hopefully it sheds some light on the behind the scenes of how coffee buying works. Fair Trade, Organic, Rainforest Alliance are all great programs, but they can also exclude a lot of hard working farmers, that produce fantastic products, and are very conscientious of the environment etc.

One last bit of food for thought.. My roastery cannot advertise our product as Organic because our kitchen is not certified Organic (I've been officially open only for a few months, after a years worth of building my business and haven't been able to get certification lined up yet). Despite this, half of my products are certified Organic. Looking at it from the business perspective, I would love to advertise my product as Organic, but just haven't been able to navigate the red tape, and I am sure there are other small businesses that are in the same boat.

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  • So is it appropriate to just go up to a roaster and ask what they pay/what their ethics are? – Michael Stachowsky Apr 26 '17 at 17:11
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    It is definitely tricky. If you were to walk into my shop and ask me that, I would look at you funny, and then start talking about what I am talking about right now. It is more about the ethics of the importer than the roaster because the roaster doesn't pay the farmer directly in most cases. In the world of importers, the top quality importers invest huge amounts of manpower, time and effort into helping the farmers, because it ends up helping them. In this way, the market effectively promotes better than fair trade prices for specialty coffee. – Nate M. Apr 26 '17 at 17:44
  • By the way, I wish I could just say, Oh yea.. you need to buy X certified product from Y roaster and that is the best. If anyone actually said that, I would doubt they had a good understanding of how the seed to cup supply chain really works. – Nate M. Apr 26 '17 at 17:45
  • Interesting, it's clearly more complex than I thought :-) – Michael Stachowsky Apr 26 '17 at 17:51
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    One other thing.. if you go to a roasters website, many times they talk about their sourcing ethics, or how they are connected to the coffee community. – Nate M. Apr 26 '17 at 17:56
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There are brands that are as ethical from both a human and environment standard, but I don't know how the prices compare. Examples:

  1. Blue Bottle Coffee: Our coffee buyers proudly place a great amount of emphasis on quality and sustainability, both from an environmental and economic standpoint.

    We purchase a number of coffees from Fair Trade certified cooperatives; however, many producers decide it’s in their best financial interest to channel their resources toward continued advances in quality and sustainability instead of the expensive process of certification. We like to factor a producer’s efforts toward greater quality as well as environmental and economic responsibility into our purchasing decisions, regardless of their certification status.

    Moving forward, it is our intention not only to maintain, but to expand our efforts to search for the best sustainable coffees the world has to offer.

  2. Kauai Coffee Company: Being a 100% USA product, Kauai Coffee Company is not part of the Fair Trade Movement. All of our coffee is grown under working conditions that are held to the same standards as the rest of the United States. The employees of Kauai Coffee Company have the distinction of being the highest-paid coffee workers in the world. Our employees receive a full range of benefits, including medical, dental and retirement benefits for themselves and their families.

    All of our 100% Hawaiian coffee is traceable to its orchard of origin on our farm. All of our coffee is “cupped” at 3 different stages of production to ensure the highest quality and consistency. Samples are cupped from, (1) each dryer batch of coffee produced, (2) each lot of coffee that is “milled” and, (3) each roasting and packaging run.

    Our coffee is inspected and double-graded first by us, then by the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture to certify grade quality and origin.

  3. Whole Foods Market's Allegro Coffee Company: To bring you the best, Whole Foods Market acquired Allegro Coffee Company back in 1996. Allegro’s commitment to transparent sustainable sourcing and ethical trade was a natural fit to our Core Values. While we also feature other local coffees in our stores, we are proud to offer a wide selection of bulk and packaged beans from our own Allegro Coffee Roasters.

    The Allegro sourcing team spends most of their time on the road (or in a plane) traveling the globe searching out coffees that are as unique as the places they come from. Currently Allegro is sourcing coffee from 25 different countries and many more family run farms and coffee cooperatives within each country. The coffee growers we partner with share our commitment to caring for the planet by growing coffee in environmentally friendly ways and many are Organic, Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade Certified and Whole Trade Guaranteed. Once harvested, our coffee beans make the journey from origin to our roastery in Colorado where each lot of coffee and every blend is roasted to bring out inherent regional characteristics and flavors. The result is a full range of Sustainably Delicious™ coffees that span the roasting spectrum from light to extra dark.

Let us know what you find. And I'm especially interested to hear how Kauai Coffee Company's coffee tastes.

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