A Better Option for the Impoverished Farmer
The fair trade movement has grown exponentially in recent years thanks to large corporate partnerships and more global awareness. It’s arguably made a difference for many tradespeople on whom wealthy countries depend.
But it’s not the only option out there if you’re interested in ethical consumerism – there are alternatives to fair trade that can work as well or better.
Recently the New York Times picked up the story of Ken Lander – a Georgian lawyer who moved his family to Costa Rica after purchasing a coffee farm. When the financial crisis hit, he became dependent on the farm for a serious profit; but he found, as many have before him, that it’s hard to profit off a coffee farm.
He was selling beans straight from the ground at their typical, cheap price. As the beans worked their way through the supply chain, they were sorted, roasted, packaged, and sold at much higher rates. After observing this process, he and some partners decided to become more intricately involved in that part of the process – the value added part, the part that makes your cappuccino $3.80 instead of $.45.
In the system that Thrive is trying to develop, farmers are paid only after their coffee has been exported, packaged and sold — at a much higher price — to retailers. If coffee is sold for, say, $7.25 a pound, Thrive splits the proceeds 50-50 with the farmers, who end up, in that example, with about $3.60 a pound.
This system pays farmers far more than they’d make on their own or even through most co-op systems. However, it also requires they wait much longer to be paid. Farming demands an investment in each new crop, which means waiting too long for last season’s payment can hurt (UPDATE: see Kenneth Landers’ comment below for clarification on this). That’s why a lot of farmers sell less of their beans through Thrive at the beginning.
It can also be difficult to manage quality, the Times reports. I had to chuckle when I read that because I’ve had fair trade-certified coffee from Starbucks that was so brutally charred it tasted like coal residue off the side of a freight train (or so I’m guessing).
Point is, there are always alternatives if you’re suspicious of the fair trade brands out there. I like any option that pays farmers well while giving them the opportunity to join in the processing of their product, if they choose.
Such a system – so hip and chic today, so progressive and conscious – is what we used to call “farming.”