August 25, 2017

Coffee Part 2: How Your Cup Affects Farmers and Laborers

Victoria Brown

Victoria Brown

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

“You can’t assume that a high price means good working conditions, or that by paying a high price you’re paying for environmental sustainability,” advises Kim Elena Ionescu, Chief Sustainability Officer for the Specialty Coffee Association. I was speaking with her in an effort to explore some ethical dilemmas surrounding coffee and what we as consumers can do about them. Of the millions of cups of coffee sipped globally each day, only a small fraction of the final sale price reaches the farmers who grew the coffee, who often live in impoverished conditions. For every $3 cup of coffee, a coffee farmer earns an average of just 3 cents. For many producers, the price they receive for coffee per kilogram is less than the cost of growing it.

In addition to farmers being exploited, coffee laborers often receive wages far below the value of their work. Many laborers earn less than $1 per day. Women and children are often hired during peak harvest season for harvesting because they are cheaper than male workers. In Kenya, women and children make less that $12 a month.

Coffee farming also exploits animals. For example, in Indonesia, palm civets, a forest-dwelling mammal found in South and Southeast Asia, are often confined to cages and force-fed coffee beans to create Kopi Luwak, the world’s most expensive coffee. The process of moving through the animals’ digestive track gives the coffee unique flavors that are highly sought after.

The best way for consumers to improve the working conditions of coffee farmers and workers is by supporting coffee producers who ensure fair working conditions and adequate wages to farmers. There are a number of certifications that strive to give good working conditions and fair prices to farmers and workers alike. Doing your own research can be a good way to find the best certification and coffee bean for you.

One of the largest certifications is Fairtrade, which is meant to combat exploitation and verify that farmers and other disadvantaged people in the coffee chain receive adequate remuneration for their work by gaining higher per pound prices for certified coffee. While a good certification, it is important to recognize that in recent years Fairtrade has faced a number of controversies that throw its work into a more critical light.

One such controversy includes the revelation that Fairtrade, whose job is to certify and monitor coffee farmers to ensure proper working conditions for laborers, only enforced their labor conditions on certified farms with more than 20 employees. Certified farms with fewer than 20 employees were not even required to give their employees minimum wage. Given that 80% of coffee globally is produced by smallholders with just a few acres and employees, Fairtrade’s decision left a major gap in ensuring fair farm laborer conditions. Fairtrade has since acknowledged the problematic nature of this policy and has been taking steps to monitor and improve working conditions on smallholder plots.

Ethical working conditions matter not just for human rights issues but also for the environment. There is a direct link between poverty and environmental destruction: when coffee farms cease to be profitable due to the low prices paid to farmers per pound, farmers often abandon their plots or raze them for use as pastureland or to grow crops like corn and wheat. And as farmers struggle to maintain their livelihoods they often switch to sun-grown coffee, removing all the plant diversity of intercropped shade-grown coffee in favor of a monoculture that produces more coffee for the first few years before the land becomes depleted.

But would better working conditions and profits for farmers increase the cost of coffee? It doesn’t have to work that way. By cutting out the numerous middlemen who operate in the coffee market and giving farmers more power to accept or decline prices we can create a fairer environment for farmers and consumers alike.

As consumers, calling for more fair production brands and well-defined certifications can enlarge the market, making way for other certifications to flourish alongside the Fairtrade certification. Smaller certifications like Proudly Made in Africa and cooperatives like Thrive offer alternatives to Fairtrade that also directly support farmers and producers. Being conscientious consumers, we can strive to support coffee retailers that provide adequate wages to coffee farmers by cutting out middlemen and ensuring a fair, livable price per kilogram prices.

Image: Max Pixel.

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