Fair Trade Kona Coffee
25 May 2009
I was speaking with a coffee farmer in El Salvador and he pays his pickers four cents per pound which is one of the best wages around. Many other farms in his area pay less and none pay more than five cents per pound. He is not a large international corporation, he is just a small farmer that was born in El Salvador, lived in the U.S. for a few years, then moved back to El Salvador to run the family coffee farm. At four cents per pound, his workers earn a decent wage for the area. If he paid them any more then he wouldn't be able to stay in business himself.
Kona Earth coffee pickers are paid 55 cents per pound or more, depending on time of year. That's more than minimum wage and above average, even for Hawaii. We have a good crew and want to keep them happy so we feel the extra pay is worth it. They are receiving more than ten times the amount paid in other coffee producing countries. It's decent pay for farm labor, even by U.S. standards.
Since we pay our coffee pickers so well, you might think that it would be easy for Kona Earth coffee to qualify as fair trade coffee. Unfortunately, Fairtrade certification seems to be more about marketing, fund raising and bureaucracy than fair farm wages.
There is a dizzying number of fair trade organizations. Promoting fair trade seems quite popular among college students because there are hundreds of student organizations worldwide. Could it be because idealistic young college students love to protest and separating the students from their money is a lucrative business? Most of the student organizations appear to concentrate more on promotional and fund raising events than they do on actually helping farm workers. In any case, none of the student associations have anything to do with certification.
Narrowing the list down to Fairtrade certification agencies brings it to a more manageable number. As a consumer, which certification logo do you look for? Can you tell which logos are real and which ones I created?
The fair trade certification agencies all have very slick websites filled with material on how important their cause is. Digging a little deeper, I can usually find several pages on how beneficial it is to get my business certified. It's nothing but a sales pitch though, there is no information on how the certification process actually works. The main recommendation is to check their list of certified businesses and purchase fair trade coffee from one of them. Obviously, that's not the solution I want.
After more digging, I finally managed to find some information on the certification process. It involves piles of paperwork, a screening coordinator and a non-refundable $50 application fee. If accepted, it's an additional $150 to $4000 for annual dues. All that just to use their logo and be listed on their website. I knew there was a reason there aren't any Kona coffee farmers that are Fairtrade certified.
Even if the fairtrade certification were free, we still wouldn't qualify because in North America they only certify importers, wholesalers and retailers, not producers. There are other organizations that deal with producers in other countries but nothing for North American farmers. Apparently, a farm can only be fairtrade certified if is is paying one tenth of U.S. wages.
The coffee farmer I talked to in El Salvador is not fairtrade certified. There's a large corporate farm nearby that is certified even though they pay less than he does. He could get certified but he said it's not worth it because it wouldn't help him sell his coffee for any more money.
I'm not too surprised by any of this. Fairtrade certification is similar to Organic certification in that original intentions are often lost in all the bureaucracy and marketing hype. Getting certified requires compliance with a huge number of rules that don't always make sense. The agencies are usually more concerned with the rules than anything else. Even using the logos here on this page without permission is pushing the boundaries.
Certifications such as Organic and Fair Trade may bring in a little extra business but for a small Kona coffee farm like us, the expense of certification is not justified. That doesn't matter though, just because we're not certified doesn't mean we can't follow the practices. We can't call our coffee "certified organic" unless we pay for certification but we still follow organic practices whenever we can. We pay our pickers well because that makes good business sense and it's the right thing to do, not because some certification agency told us to.
So the official answer is that Kona Earth can not get fair trade certified. The realistic answer is that we pay more than ten times the wages paid by fair trade farms so: YES! Kona Earth coffee does indeed follow fair trade practices.