As part of our ongoing discussion about basic concepts of cappuccino and coffee, we thought we’d talk some about fair trade vs free trade coffee practices and what they mean. If you’ve heard anything about fair and free trade, you probably know that fair trade implements restrictions and requirements that do good for the local communities that grow and produce the coffee. Coffee only grows easily in the tropics where there’s a concentration of third-world countries. What requirements? They primarily deal with wages, work conditions, and ecological impact that comes with producing the coffee.
Free trade coffee is coffee that is produced, transported, and sold outside these industry rules and trade regulations. Many of these rules and regulations are determined by the North America Free Trade Agreement, but the letter of the law and its enforcement in the coffee industry is far from 100% effective and accurate when designating free and fair trade coffee. Moreover, just because a coffee producer chooses to operate outside the particular rules and regulations to make their coffee doesn’t mean they’re actively engaged in malicious treatment of their workers or the local ecosystem. In Hawaii, California, and parts of the southern United States, you can also find smaller, local coffee farmers who bring their product directly to market.
With all that being said, fair trade coffee generally tends to be a more socially-conscious way of being a coffee drinker/consumer, but it’s far from a global game-changer and may not make any difference at all when it comes to individual coffee bean purchases. With coffee, as with so many things, the saying goes, “Fair trade isn’t fair, and free trade isn’t free.” There may or may not be a significant difference in the cost of the coffee—the other major consideration of the average coffee consumer.
Some geopolitical consequences on the coffee industry go well beyond trade policies and labeling certification. One of the places known for delicious and distinctive coffee is Yemen, for example. But with the geopolitical strife in that part of the world, it’s not always feasible to safely get the coffee out of Yemen. As a remedy, some coffee producers have transplanted the native Yemen beans to Hawaii coffee fields.