Consumer Autonomy in the Coffee Industry

Consumer Autonomy in the Coffee Industry
April 30, 2020 No Comments Environment and Health Ariel Sykes

The Hidden Price You Pay: An Analysis of Ethics, the Environment and Consumer Autonomy in the Coffee Industry 

By Sofia Scotto

Our society has become virtually contingent on coffee for its survival. As coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, our global economy has become dependent on coffee for economic growth and as the demand for the product increases with every year, the role that coffee plays in our society has become a viable concern. Currently, the coffee industry is perpetuating issues of deforestation and labor injustice, due to the fact that 90 percent of the world’s coffee is produced in impoverished nations. Therefore, there lies a clear correlation between the coffee industry and ethical issues involving labor and environmental justice.

Table of Contents


Our basic functioning as a society has virtually become contingent on coffee, both explicitly as a supplement to our energy levels but more implicitly to the longevity of our economy and ecosystem. With the world’s dependency on coffee growing every day, the following scenario may not seem to be such a distant reality. Your town is probably filled with coffee shops which have become artsy hubs for all kinds of reunions from those of internet startups to long catch up sessions with old friends. When you walk into one of these shops, there is typically a board full of enticing options from macchiatos to lattes or your usual choice of brewed coffee, which is usually the cheapest option on the menu. The menu probably holds little information regarding the origin of this brewed coffee, instead it often just details the roasting process or the blend of the beans themselves.

For most consumers, this mundane occurrence does not predicate pause; they buy their cup of coffee and then move on with their day without questioning where that coffee comes from or how it was produced. For one, the majority of coffee shops do not provide consumers with this information in the first place.

  • But What if I could tell you the secrets behind your coffee that you never knew?
  • Or that this single purchase could be perpetuating global poverty and depleting the Amazon rainforest?

Maybe then you will second guess this mundane action and its impact. In this paper, I hope to answer and explore the question of who holds the responsibility to alter the current practices of the coffee industry in order to adopt global labor and environmental justice. I will address instances when we as a society prioritize concerns involving fair worker compensation and treatment over environmental issues such as deforestation which the industry perpetuates and vice versa. Furthermore, I will analyze how we can better balance the needs of both the environment and humanity in order to create a more fair and just industry.

Currently, many critics believe that there is no current system which balances both of these needs perfectly or one that implements an approach centered around sustainability and the three pillars of economic, environmental and social concerns. However, I believe that in the future the solution lies in a better understanding of human versus environmental need in order to address where these issues don’t seem to reconcile one another.   

In order to guide my discussion, I will be considering the organization of Fair Trade as a whole, in order to consider how the organization does or does not fulfill its mission of promoting labor and environmental justice and the apparent discrepancies that exist in successfully achieving these goals within the coffee industry. Fair Trade currently supports over 880,000 of the 125 million farmers who depend on coffee globally, and although Fair Trade composes only a small percentage of the entire global coffee industry, the organization still remains the most notable and purchased label whose mission is rooted in improving labor and environmental justice within the coffee industry (Jones 1).

Defining Fair Trade

First we must define the concept of Fair Trade to initiate our discussion, which in theory proposes “a comprehensive approach to sustainable development that supports farmers with quality improvement, environmental stewardship, business capacity training, access to credit, and community development funds to help improve lives” (Thurstan, Morris and Steinman, 130). Currently, Fair Trade is an independent nonprofit organization which licenses the use of the Fair Trade label based on whether or not products comply with a list of Fair Trade regulation, such as increased worker compensation and community development initiatives to end poverty in these farming communities. In order to fund these projects, there is an established market price for the commodity, which typically establishes the global value at which the product is sold. However, this market price system was established over 100 years ago when coffee prices were incredibly volatile.  Although the value of the market price has fluctuated since then, the system rarely has adequately paid farmers. For these reasons, Fair Trade attempts to more adequately compensate farmers for their work.

Many critics of this market price system explain that “The issue with the market price is that it poorly reflects retail supply and demand” (Westervelt, 2). Further expressing how farmers are not often fairly compensated at the price that their coffee is actually worth or the price at which suppliers are selling the commodity for, allowing suppliers to buy coffee at low prices and earn a profit by marking up the price of the coffee. These discrepancies have contributed to immense financial struggles for coffee farmers owners as well as workers and because “90% of the world’s coffee is grown in developing nations” this has only perpetuated issues of poverty rather than improving lives (Goldschein, 3).

In order to combat this economic disenfranchisement, Fair Trade has established the Fair Trade Minimum Price, which aims to cover costs of production and act as a safety net when market prices fall below sustainable levels. In addition, the organization has established a Fair Trade Premium which aims to support a communal fund for workers and farmers to use as they see fit in order to fulfill the organization’s goal of balancing three pillars of sustainability to improve the social, economic and environmental conditions of coffee growing communities. The established Fair Trade Premium helps to put these pillars into action as 25% of these proceeds must be used towards improving the quality and the productivity of coffee farms (Westervelt, 5).

The concerns regarding fair labor justice within the coffee industry presents the first ethical issue which the coffee industry presents, leading me to question who holds the responsibility to improve systems of poverty where individuals who experience this financial instability are not able to help themselves. Ultimately my paper aims to answer this question and illuminate as well as analyze three major ethical concerns which the industry presents including social issues of fair labor justice, economic growth of both farmers and the environmental concerns of deforestation that the commodity perpetuates. Now I will explain the coffee industries correlation and direct impact towards deforestation and other pressing environmental issues which impact our world.

Coffees Impact on the Environment & Ecosystem

The increased challenges of deforestation currently present the largest environmental issues perpetuated by the coffee industry. “With 2.5 million acres of forest in Central America alone being cleared to make way for coffee farming, the issue of deforestation only seems to be growing with increased demand for the product” (Moore, 10). Yet, organizations like Fair Trade have done little to actively address and fight this prevalent issue. Fair Trade currently bands a list of pesticides and other products which they deem environmentally harmful such as weed killers and artificial soul stimulants. However, the organization has yet to mention how it intends to balance and manage the increased demand for the product which presents the greatest concern for the environment.

Although some argue, that addressing demand should not fall on Fair Trade as this would promote sales of Fair Trade coffee, I contest that as a non profit the organization’s primary concern should be to function as a social impact cooperative and fulfill its mission of initiating positive change rather than to operate as a business by accruing capital. Furthermore, even in terms of current farming practices, Fair Trade laws seems much more suggestive than regulative.

Some examples of this ambiguity reside in how the organization suggests that producers leave buffer zones around conservation areas, minimize water use for irrigation, and to ensure that organic waste is “disposed of in a sustainable manner.” Many of these suggestions aren’t quantified as for example the proper length of a buffer zone is not proposed with a finite number, the amount of water that should be minimized is not exemplified and “a sustainable manner” is not defined. Therefore Fair Trade regulation is extremely ambiguous and often times causes confusion for farmers who do not have the means to interpret these terms and expectations. Furthermore, there has been little to no documented research by the organization that states how Fair Trade has made any impact on the environment in certain communities.

Today research performed by an outside organization suggests how Fair Trade does not always equate to organic and that solely 60% of Fair Trade Coffee is, in fact, organic according to an article by Jacob Leibenluft (Leibenluft, 7). Through the aforementioned facts, we are able to deduce an apparent discrepancy between the mission of Fair Trade and the actions which the farmers actively execute. These disparities, therefore, are what perpetuate the organization’s impact and correlation to improving environmental injustice as they highlight the ethical issues which this paper aims to present.

These challenges lead to my second ethical question regarding how we as a society navigate and prioritize issues that impact humanity over the needs of the environment and who holds the responsibility to instill systems which balance both pressing concerns equally. However, in order to interpret and answer these pressing ethical issues, we must first interpret who this problem involves and acknowledge the work of Fair Trade in a real-life scenario.

Stakeholders Invested in this Global Issue

It is first important to recognize that there is a multitude of different stakeholders who are impacted by Fair Trade and the financial stability of the coffee industry. First, the success of Fair Trade largely depends on the role of the consumer and the type of coffee they choose to purchase.

“Fair Trade assumes that privileged consumers are willing to spend more money on coffee and other products in order to help combat poverty in less developed nations.”

Jessica Sadler

Sadler’s paper outlines the importance of the consumer in supporting the Fair Trade cause while also advocating for the need for an active consumer in order to improve the malpractices of the current industry. She ultimately argues that consumers should spend more money on Fair Trade coffee because it demonstrates concern for others, through employing the value of empathy. Later on in my paper, I will explain how the role of the consumer is much more complicated in regards to Fair Trade and that the responsibility to purchase ethically sourced coffee could not solely rely on one stakeholder in order to address all of the pressing ethical issues which this commodity presents.   

One of the other most prevalent stakeholders towards the future of the industry is the coffee farm owners and workers themselves. Farm owners who apply to gain Fair Trade designation agree to compliance with a set of guidelines which the organization proposes in order to maintain the Fair Trade minimum and premium price. Therefore, farmers are essentially signing an agreement with terms that they have little say in establishing. Instead, farmers often times are expected to comply with this regulation without understanding its relevance or even their own impact on the matter. Therefore, a lacking of constructive dialogue between each coffee farmer and the Fair Trade organization is one of the most probable causes for instances where Fair Trade regulation is not working. Later on, in my paper, I will detail exact cases where Fair Trade does not seem to be working and provide possible solutions to these issues.

Lastly, large corporations which sell coffee play a significant role in consumer awareness and purchasing of Fair Trade coffee. These companies actively choose whether or not to support Fair Trade and have great power to alter the consumer’s choices by impacting what products they buy. Larger coffee chain cooperatives such as Starbucks, for example, have pledged to buy 100% Fair Trade coffee and promote actions which comply with Fair Trade standards. Therefore, we must acknowledge the impact that coffee shops and retailers have on the consumer experience but also the responsibility that they have to be transparent with consumers who purchase their products. All consumers should have the basic right of knowing where the coffee that they drink comes from and how it is produced, in the same way, that consumers are informed of where their meat is sourced and sometimes the manner in which it is raised.

Coffee shops themselves hold this responsibility to educate consumers as they have the ability to falsely manipulate the consumers perspective. After considering all stakeholders involved and the role in which each contributes to this issue I have concluded that the answer to my ethical question is less straightforward than I had previously anticipated. Ultimately, I concluded that the responsibility in instilling both fair labor and environmental justice falls upon both the consumer to be active in their purchases but also the Fair Trade organization as well as the farmers which they work with to ensure that Fair Trade products comply with the utmost concern for creating improved working conditions and environmental justice. However, in order to address where Fair Trade needs to improve, we must outline the root of the problem as well as where Fair Trade is working.

Case Study 1: An Analysis of Fair Trade in Rwanda

Although Fair Trade has demonstrated a lack of concern for the coffee industries contributions to deforestation, we must also acknowledge the areas where Fair Trade has improved working conditions as well as compensation. In 2007, Fair Trade USA joined with the Stitching Het Groene Woudt, a leading Dutch foundation, to empower seven cooperatives that support more than 100,000 people. The three-year program helped cooperative members improve their organizational capacity, strengthen internal transparency, strengthen democratic governance, and raise management skills. In Rwanda, Fair Trade certification has translated into schools, clean water wells, and long-term economic security.

“In Africa, it’s very difficult for villagers to attend school, but since these cooperatives became Fair Trade, the majority of members, over 90 percent, can send their children to school. Fair Trade also remains committed to consumer education and awareness building, not just for coffee but for a whole range of products.”

Christine Condo, Executive Director of the Rwanda Economic Development Initiative (Thurstan, Morris, and Steinman, 131)

Therefore, Fair Trade coffee in Rwanda demonstrates how the organization has been successful in improving lives for certain individuals in the coffee community at large. However, we must also acknowledge that this above-mentioned perspective is from someone directly involved with Fair Trade and in order to better understand the matter we must consider the other perspective.

Case Study 2: An Analysis of Fair Trade in Ethiopia & Uganda

In this paragraph, I hope to answer and address what role, if any, Fair Trade holds to abide by their mission statement of establishing improved working conditions and compensation, as well as who holds the responsibility to maintain this compliance. Although Fair Trade is often associated and colloquially understood to express better wages for farmers within the organization, this is not always the case.

In fact, Fair Trade has actually led to worse conditions for farmers in certain areas of the globe. Based on a 2014 study by the Department of Developmental Sciences at the University of London, we see how Fair Trade does not seem to be helping farmers in all situations. The study focuses on Fair Trade grown products in both Ethiopia and Uganda and revealed surprising results which demonstrate how Fair Trade does not always equate to the most ethical option.

Over the course of the four-year study, the organization released a survey to workers in both Uganda and Ethiopia to describe their experience working for their employers. The survey found that out of the Fair Trade Ethiopian coffee farmers, above 30% of these individuals experienced wages below 60% of the median wage in Ethiopia. This is roughly equivalent to 30% of Ethiopian Fair Trade coffee farmers receiving 6 ETB per hour (ETB is the Ethiopian currency).

If we translate this value into United States dollars, this is approximately 25 cents per hour, which is undoubtedly an incredibly low and unsustainable wage to be viable.

What’s more, is with over 30% of Fair Trade workers receiving these low wages we see how Fair Trade is actually failing to promote labor justice in Ethiopia rather than promote it. As described by the study “The median wage refers to the median wage received by manual agricultural wage workers in either coffee or flower production. Given the overall low level of daily wages, any value below 60% of the median reflects an extremely low daily wage rate. In Ethiopia, median wages for manual coffee jobs were ETB 10 whereas the median wage in manual jobs in flowers was higher at ETB 12.5. The 60 percent equivalent of these two wage levels was, therefore, ETB 6 and ETB 7.5 respectively” ( FTEPR,73).

Furthermore, there is no government established minimum wage within Ethiopia; therefore workers largely rely on other organizations to protect them from unjust treatment in the workplace. What’s more is that in comparison to non-Fair Trade workers, only less than 5% experienced wages below 60% of Ethiopia’s median wage, revealing the apparent discrepancies between the principles that the organization is attempting to abide by and what farmers are actively putting into practice.

Fair Trade promises to “enable producers and workers to maintain a sustainable livelihood; that is one that not only meets day-to-day needs for economic, social and environmental well-being but that also enables improved conditions in the future.”

(World Fair Trade Organization, 184).

Furthermore, Only about 8% of Fair Trade certified Coffee farmers received high wages in comparison to 30% of non-fair trade workers. The study also revealed the difference between working conditions within Fair Trade coffee cooperatives and Non-Fair Trade Coffee Cooperatives in Uganda. In regards to conditions in the workplace, the study found that out of the Fair Trade cooperatives only 28% offered free meals in comparison to 63% in Non-Fair Trade cooperatives. And finally, arguably the most shocking statistic is that only 7% of Fair Trade certified Ugandan coffee farms offered overtime compensation in comparison to 94% of non-Fair Trade farms.

After acknowledging that these instances of unfairness exist, understanding the causes of these discrepancies points us a step further in addressing the challenge which this injustice promotes. One of the probable causes of this mistreatment in Fair Trade coffee is corruption, although it is hard to target the exact cause for these failures of Fair Trade. Within the coffee trade in Ethiopia and Uganda, there is an assumption of an egalitarian distribution of money and resources but unfortunately, this is not always the case. As a result, there is an unequal distribution of money from coffee farm owners to the lower level workers on these farms. Although Fair Trade does in fact support and provides farmers with higher earnings, these earnings do not always trickle down to lower-level workers on these farms, perpetuating issues of labor injustice. Furthermore, the lack of consideration of the farmer’s perspective in the creation of Fair Trade regulation is problematic.

Currently, Fair Trade regulation is created in a generalized manner in order to fit the conditions of multiple locations around the globe. However, this method fails to address the individual needs of each farmer due to the regulations more generalized approach. Therefore, Fair Trade cooperatives fail to recognize that the expectations of the organization for farmers in Rwanda may, in fact, be feasible for this country but not for other areas around the globe such as Ethiopia and Uganda, subsequently causing disenfranchisement in the Fair Trade system. By not including each individual farmer’s perspective, there is no consideration on where farmers place value, or whether or not they see the importance of making an environmental change or paying their workers fairly. Subsequently, farmers may not be as inspired to comply with Fair Trade regulations if they themselves do not believe or are not inspired to follow them.

Furthermore, it is ultimately up to the farm owners and their workers to fulfill and comply with Fair Trade designation. Therefore, in instances when farm owners are faced with difficult ethical decisions such as prioritizing the importance of labor justice versus issues of environmental justice Fair Trade is no longer guiding the discussion because ultimately the decision in that instant comes down to the farmer. Therefore we must place greater emphasis on helping farmers to make these difficult decisions and to understand what they believe to be the best solution in the instances when we are prioritizing human needs over the needs of the environment.

Addressing the Need to Support Labor Justice and Environmental Justice

There are numerous and increasing occasions where the needs of the environment seem to be at the cost of fair labor justice or vice versa within the coffee industry. Often times, the needs of both of these movements which are relevant to the coffee industry do not seem to reconcile one another.

One particularly compelling example of where environmental issues which impact environmental justice create conflicting solutions is in regards to the La Roya disease. La Roya is a coffee leaf rust that is derived by a fungus on the crop and if not treated through pesticides will subsequently cause the plant to die. This disease has in recent years impacted the crops of many coffee farmers in central and South America and has caused significant issues regarding Fair Trade and organic certification (Westervelt, 3). Therefore coffee farmers are faced with the challenge of whether or not to save their crop; often times their only source of income, or save their certification and subsequently the planet in the process. In most cases, farmers choose to save their crop in order to sustain their own livelihoods.

The issues involving the coffee industry and environmental justice do not end here. With the demand for coffee growing each year, the industry is struggling to meet the demand of consumers. Subsequently, this is causing farmers to expand into lands of preservation such as endangered forests within the Amazon and other areas of central and southern America. Although some may argue that farmers can only worry about the planet after they worry and sustain themselves, I believe that it is feasible to propose practices which would protect both interests.

Currently, out of the 50 countries that experience the highest rates of deforestation in the world, 37 of them are also coffee producers according to the WWF and conservation international (Killeen and Harper, 10). Yet there has been little to no acknowledgment by Fair Trade on how the industry will attempt to regulate the demand of coffee as a means of protecting the environment as well as their own production methods. With workers and the Fair Trade organization driven to make money, the increased demand of coffee seems to be a tremendous benefit towards the financial success of the industry as a whole at a cost of the environment. Therefore the needs of the people, the farmers who grow these products, do not seem to reconcile with the needs of the environment to limit demand before the lands of these forests run out.

Furthermore, these conflicts are at the crux of this papers ethical question, that centers around instances when environmental issues do not seem to reconcile with the needs of the environment and how we as a society influence the decisions of others in prioritizing the importance of one issue impacting our world over another. Ultimately, after addressing the issues which Fair Trade coffee presents, what I believe to be the most ethical solution addresses this issue based on the values of fairness, justice, autonomy, and responsibility.

The Value of Fairness and Justice in Fair Trade

After understanding the aspects of the coffee industry which pose ethical, environmental and civic concerns we can better understand which ethical values can be implemented to improve the most ethical standards.On a basic level, Fair Trade certification relies on compliance and trust among the two parties involved. For one, Fair Trade relies on farmers to be accountable and responsible with carrying out the organizations regulation, whereas farmers rely on Fair Trade to instill expectations which are attainable and important. Lastly, the consumer trusts Fair Trade to comply with the standards which the organization is said to promote. As a result, these relationships demonstrate how all stakeholders involved in this issue rely on each other.

Equally as important to fairness is the value of justice, based on the value of justice farmers deserve the ability to have equal and fair pay in the workplace. Currently, Fair Trade attempts to create fair wages by use of the Fair Trade minimum and premium price which has been successful in countries such as Rwanda but was equally unsuccessful in areas such as Ethiopia and Uganda. Therefore, Fair Trade holds the responsibility to improve areas where the organization was not able to create positive change by including the farmer experience and attempting to listen to their perspective and needs in areas where the regulations of Fair Trade does not seem to be working. Based on the value of fairness, Fair Trade must also seek out ways to help Ugandan and Ethiopian coffee farmers to improve the working environment of their laborers by strengthening their overtime compensation, access to clean bathrooms and access to food in the workplace.

Currently, once a farmer becomes Fair Trade certified there is little to no monitoring of whether or not that same farmer maintains their compliance with regulation after they have become endorsed by the organization. By improving the clarity of regulation and by instating a yearly renewal of the FairTrade designation, the organization will be better able to address the instances where Fair Trade does not seem to be working. In Ethiopia and Uganda, Fair Trade largely failed to address the growing infringements that certain farmers have demonstrated towards following the organization’s guidelines. In part, this may be a result of the fact that western consumers are ultimately the ones driving the consumption of Fair Trade and the organization perhaps wants to protect its own image by not making this information susceptible to the public.

Furthermore, consumers would perhaps be less interested in Fair Trade if they understood that the industry did not tailor towards each farmer’s needs and standards. However, based on the value of fairness, not only is this an unethical action predicated by Fair Trade as it goes against what the mission of the organization stands for but it is also largely unfair towards the lower wage earning farmers who are not receiving fair compensation or justice in the workplace. For these reasons, Fair Trade holds the responsibility to find solutions to these problems in order to promote a more sustainable and fair work environment.

Fair Trade also holds an environmental duty to actively promote sustainable practices. In order for consumers to truly make an impact and believe in Fair Trade, the organization must be transparent and innovative when solutions do not seem to present themselves. We all as active citizens in this world hold the responsibility to promote systems of labor and environmental justice. Therefore by Fair Trade bringing a voice to these issues, we are inspiring the consumer to also use their money towards organizations that are environmentally friendly.

However, it is important to recognize how the relationship between Fair Trade and the consumer largely depend on each other, with an imbalance to this system we become even farther away from our goals as a progressive society. By recognizing the individual needs of each farmer around the globe and tailoring the needs of Fair Trade regulation in a way that will set up these farmers to successfully comply to their presented expectations, Fair Trade will subsequently be better able to maintain environmental and labor justice. Furthermore, by establishing a mutual dialogue between farm owners and the Fair Trade organization, Fair Trade will be better able to guide farmers through making difficult decisions which lie at the intersection of the environment and growing community efforts.

For example, in the event that farmers are hoping to save their crop when faced with a disease such as La Roya, they know that they can seek out support from the Fair Trade organization itself to help them work around these roadblocks without compromising the needs of the environment. One possible solution to this issue would be utilizing environmentally friendly fertilizers which inhibit the spreading of the disease while also being helpful towards the environment.

Furthermore, Fair Trade could initiate efforts to better support farmers in the event that their crop has been lost disease by helping to replant crops in order to eliminate this growing fear in the farming community. In the case of deforestation specifically, this means finding ways of combating increased demand for the coffee trade by making farmers more efficient without compromising quality and safety as well as perpetuating the need to expand farms into forests. In terms of Fair Trade, this would mean creating initiatives which help farmers to be more efficient on the lands that they do own rather than to incentivize expansion into endangered forests. As a result, Fair Trade should enforce regulation which stops farmers from encroaching upon forested land.

The value of fairness also pertains to how each farmer is individually considered. Fair Trade must recognize that the environmental needs and conditions of one place may be very different from those in another and Fair Trade regulation should not penalize certain farmers for an inability to comply with an unrealistic standard.

For example, shade grown farming, a growing method which requires coffee to be grown under a canopy of trees, is said to be the best style of farming to prevent soil erosion and as a result deforestation, however, this method is not a feasible growing method in all areas around the globe such as Africa which are less forested. Therefore Fair Trade regulation needs to be more targeted in reflecting the needs of each area around the globe and create specialized programs to meet these needs.

In conclusion, based on the value of Fairness and duty Fair Trade holds the responsibility to address the deforestation crisis which is heavily impacted by the coffee industry by helping farmers to establish more efficient farms in order to monitor growing demand. Furthermore, Fair Trade needs to establish more targeted support in order to meet the needs of each farm owner and their employees to better address fair worker compensation as well as resources due to the organization’s mission of establishing improved labor justice.

Fairness in Regards to the Consumers Duty

After considering the value of Fairness in regards to Fair Trade we must also consider this values impact on the consumer. As consumers, we hold the responsibility to support methods of equality which provide individuals with equal opportunities to overcome systems of poverty and progress forward financially due to our individual responsibility to perpetuate systems which help others rather than to denounce them. As members of our global ecosystem, we also hold a duty towards protecting our environment. Based on the value of fairness we must treat the environment equal to any other human concern which impacts our future.

Furthermore, Fairness also relates to the consumer’s own treatment in this case, that they too deserve to have access to truthful information regarding Fair Trade. Just as much as consumers hold the responsibility to buy coffee which promotes ethical practices, the shops that they support hold the responsibility to treat the consumer fairly by providing them with information regarding coffee’s production. Therefore based on the value of fairness towards the consumer, coffee shops and larger corporations that sell the product must also actively advertise where their coffee is from and its methods of production so that consumers can make informed and autonomous decisions about what they buy.

In conclusion, the consumer, workers on coffee farmers, and the environment should all be considered as equal stakeholders within this issue. In addition, organizations like Fair Trade hold the responsibility, based on the values of Fairness and duty, to uphold the principles of their mission statement to promote positive change. Furthermore, consumers hold the responsibility to be active citizens and use their money to promote systems of fairness and environmental justice. Lastly, locations which sell coffee must be transparent and fair to the consumer by providing them with enough information to understand where and how their coffee is produced in order to make decisions which perpetuate ethical solutions. After considering all aspects that this case presents in terms of the values of fairness and duty, I will now address the role that choice plays in making autonomous decisions.

The Value of Autonomy: the Power in Choice

Fair Trade in many ways currently infringes upon consumer autonomy by attempting to maintain the financial support of the organization. Currently, Fair Trade releases little to no information describing the specific manner in which Fair Trade aims to either perpetuate or denounce systems of poverty and mistreatment of the environment within our society. Therefore, the organization in a sense limits the ability for consumer autonomy all together because, without the background to fully understand how Fair Trade spends its money, consumers are not able to make a completely autonomous decision in the process.

Secondly, Fair Trade expects consumers to pay more money in order to prevent immense social issues such as poverty and sustainability solely based on the value of empathy and care for others. However, this expectation is not feasible for individuals who do not have the financial means to buy a product at a raised price and further creates the expectation from consumers that they are purchasing a better quality product. Furthermore, many critics of the organization explain how Fair Trade coffee does not automatically equate to better tasting or better quality coffee even though this is what the organization typically attempts to market towards its consumer, raising the question of how do we expect people to pay more for a worse product; this is counter-intuitive.

On the other side of this issue, there is an argument which lies in consumers upholding trust in a brand and a reliance on the brands’ ability to comply with the standards which it is said to support. However, I believe the solution lies in changing how we think about Fair Trade. Fair Trade should not incentivize companies based on their ability to comply with the organizations established guidelines but instead should reward farmers based on quality in order to retain consumer interest and excitement for the product.

In terms of farmer autonomy, Fair Trade assumes the practices that should be endorsed by farmers without considering their needs and perspective. Instead, the industry largely assumes that they are one sole entity with a singular need. However, as the aforementioned research has summarized, this is not always the case. The needs of different locations which grow Fair Trade coffee are very different,  and the practices which are utilized to grow coffee in these areas is subsequently different as well. Where Fair Trade falls short is in its failure to recognize the power of farmer autonomy and the role that the farmer plays as a stakeholder in this issue.

Currently Fair Trade inhibits farmers from making entirely autonomous decisions; instead, they are forced to comply with the regulation which the organization sets that they may not agree to. As a result, there often times exists an inherent discrepancy between the regulation which Fair Trade imposes on farmers and the actions that these farmers actively execute. However, it seems unjust to expect farmers to comply with standards that they are not excited about, invested in, or that they believe in if there is little to no guidance by the organization in navigating this newly adopted process.

Furthermore, if farmers do not value saving the environment, or labor justice and strengthening their communities, they are less likely to fulfill standards of Fair Trade which attempt to improve these areas. Therefore, there lies a gap in education and an absence of dialogue. Farmers need to understand the importance of environmental issues and the role that they play in the agricultural industry, in order to better address problems which the coffee industry presents such as deforestation and climate change for the future. Fair Trade’s infringement on farmer autonomy explains the emerging discrepancies which exist within the implementation of Fair Trade amongst farmers in different areas of the globe. Without including the voices of farmers in the conversation and without educating them about why the choices they are making matter, the organization is further perpetuating issues of environmental justice in an unsustainable manner.

With farmers as a key stakeholder and interest in this issue, they are the ones that are actively responsible for carrying out the Fair Trade organizations desired changes. Therefore we must find ways in which to educate but also inspire farmers to fairly treat their workers just as well as they would treat the environment. Furthermore, this work will also equip farmers to make difficult decisions in the future when Fair Trade regulation does not present answers such as when the needs of the individuals who work for these farms do not align with protecting the environment in the case of the La Roya disease. As noted by a conversation between a young farmer and his shepherd in a first-hand account, farmers generally have a negative perspective of Fair Trade.

“Don’t let us be humbugged by the fair-traders. It is not fair trade, but fair rents and FAIR PLAY that the farmer wants. Other countries that have fair trade are worse off than we are. There is no market for the farmer like old England with free trade.”

-Farmer (Samuelson, 1)

Although it is hard to validate these claims that are proposed by this farmer due to the fact that the source is presented as a form of dialogue, it still reflects the general negative connotation that Fair Trade holds within the farming community. One possible solution to remedy this negative connotation which sounds Fair Trade would be to ask farmers what is important to them in order to offer more tailored support to guide them through these challenging questions. Fair Trade currently has the greatest ability to initiate this dialogue, due to the organizations already established connections with over 800,000 farmers globally. Therefore although I explained the power that the farmer holds to ultimately implement ethical choices, this does not mean that they solely hold the responsibility or burden to advocate for this necessary social change.

Without continued consumer support of Fair Trade coffee, the organization would not be able to gain the resources needed to improve their current practices. Therefore as consumers by continuing to support Fair Trade we subsequently expand the number of dollars the organization can use to better support farmers that may not have the means to gain and maintain Fair Trade certification. Without cash flow towards Fair Trade, the organization will not have the ability to change the current practices of the industry or progress forward towards improvement. One of these necessary improvements is in regards to farmer autonomy, Fair Trade holds the responsibility to include the perspectives of farmers in the conversation.

This means both educating farmers on the importance of their decisions but also to engage in an open dialogue with them in order to better understand the needs of individual farmers in order to create a comprehensive and targeted approach to implementing more ethical practices. In terms of consumer autonomy, the consumer has the right to have access to all information in regards to how their coffee is sourced and the means of production. With transparency, consumers will better be able to make more informed choices on which systems they hope their money supports and feel more confident in their continued support of Fair Trade coffee. After highlighting the issues which the Fair Trade industry presents I will now explore where the responsibility lies in changing these current practices.  

Understanding Responsibility: As a Means of Guiding Consumer & Farmer Beneficence

In regards to Fair Trade, the organization relies on consumer interest in order to maintain the standards of equality which they hope to promote. Although there has been little research regarding the demographics which are responsible for the consumption of Fair Trade, there has been a recent discovery of the impact that income and age play in Fair Trade coffees consumption (Kelly, 13). As a result, demonstrating the organization’s expectation of the consumer to use their money towards programs which will create positive social and environmental change.

The consumption of Fair Trade coffee is predicated on practicality, as the organization attempts to make the ethical decision for the consumer, which consequently has often lead to less consumer research into whether or not Fair Trade truly is the best option. Furthermore, in regards to other organizations which present similar missions to Fair Trade, such as ethically sourced coffee, the lines are blurred in defining what truly is the most ethical option. Currently, Fair Trade is the fastest growing non-profit organization which aims to comply with standards that promote labor and environmental justice.

As a result, I believe that the best solution to the issues which the coffee industry presents would be able to allocate resources, time and money towards improving Fair Trade’s current practices to better support the environment and coffee farmers, while simultaneously growing the population of people which the organization would be able to support. However, although Fair Trade seems to be the most ethical option today there may be new organizations which surpass Fair Trade or even undermine the values which the organization has proposed for the industry in the future. Furthermore, in order for Fair Trade to accomplish these improvement initiatives successfully, Fair Trade would largely rely on the consumer to continue to support the industry.

In terms of consumer responsibility, there exists a clear necessity for consumer support towards the consumption of Fair Trade coffee as I before explained, therefore the question becomes what are the ways in which we can better inspire this consumer support and what are the steps in which we need to take as a society to make this change happen? For one education is part of the answer that we need to educate individuals on the power of their purchases and how they have the ability to change peoples lives.

Secondly, Fair Trade must recognize and provide consumers with information regarding instances when Fair Trade has transformed communities such as in Rwanda, but also where the organization is still struggling to make positive changes such as in Ethiopia and Uganda. By providing consumers with this information, Fair Trade will be able to inspire stronger and more consistent support through transparency but also trust for the Fair Trade method. As a result, this confidence in the Fair Trade product would also demonstrate the power in the consumer’s voice to make social change through their purchases and therefore hopefully inspire increased support of the organization. Furthermore, this increased support would help to eliminate the need to marginalize certain groups in the community who do not have the financial means to support these prices.

However, Fair Trade has still yet to reach its full potential following amongst individuals who have the financial means to sustain the higher prices, therefore we must inspire these individuals to understand the power of their voice to make social change through education initiatives. The responsibility of the consumer to educate themselves on the coffee which they are purchasing is important but it also is significantly dependent on the role of Fair Trade in providing truthful information.

Fair Trade’s Responsibility

In terms of addressing the issues which Fair Trade presents we must consider who holds the responsibility to change and rectify them. Currently, Fair Trade is also responsible for improving its regulation and better support of communities where the organization fails to create positive change in labor and environmental justice, such as in places like Ethiopia and Uganda.

In order to improve this mistreatment as I before mentioned Fair Trade must be more transparent and create a two-way dialogue between the needs of each farmer regardless of regulation and the organization in order to ensure understanding of the conditions and expectations from both parties involved. Furthermore, the organization should establish support groups for farmers that cannot maintain the financial burden of Fair Trade in order to create a plan that will help them to escape poverty as they are the ones who need the financial support the most. Therefore Fair Trade holds the responsibility to be as transparent as they can possibly be but to also document the cases and places in which they have had negative effects on populations and find solutions to these problems to sustain consumer trust in the industry.

Furthermore, Fair Trade holds the responsibility to continue to grow the support of the products the industry promotes and create positive change. Not everyone can afford to buy coffee let alone Fair Trade coffee due to its high price. However, the purpose of this paper is not to argue that all individuals have to buy ethically sourced coffee, that would first be an impossible request and secondly, be insensitive. Rather this paper hopes to argue that the majority of individuals who do have the economic ability to buy Fair Trade products instead hold the responsibility to be active consumers in the ways in which they can use their money to support positive change. With every item that we buy, we have a choice of which practices we are going to support and sustain and which we hope to discontinue.

This is the essence of my paper, that at the root of the issue we need to be active consumers who know what we are buying and why we continue to make the choice to do so. We must perpetuate systems of fairness, equality, and quality in the coffee industry rather than systems that sustain opposite practices. Secondly, some may question why the purchasing of coffee matters so much and why consumers should allocate more of their resources towards the industry.

Firstly, coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world and this paper does not choose to argue that consumers should not consider where the other products that they buy come from and the ways that they are sourced but instead argues that consumers as a whole must be active in the practices which their money supports in entirety. The coffee industry continues to grow in consumption each year and as the industry grows, more and more consumers are subsequently faced with the decision of which brand to buy. In the future, due to the increased demand which currently presents itself, it is plausible to assume that interest in the coffee industry will only continue to grow if not remain at its current levels. For these reasons, it is not that the other products that we buy as consumers do not matter but instead that coffee matters just as much due to the environmental and labor impacts that the commodity presents.

In terms of education, we must also consider that not all individuals have the resources to educate themselves on what the most ethically sourced coffee may be, we can not assume that in all cases Fair Trade is available and that there is an understanding that this is the best approach to preventing environmental and labor injustice. In fact, there may be better options such as thrive market: which is a smaller scaled coffee supplier that incentives farmers based on their ability to treat their workers with equality in wages, the workplace, and towards the environment. This new system instead incentivizes these farmers with a premium for improving the quality of products which they create rather than their ability to follow regulation. However, Thrive is still largely in its preliminary stages of development and not as widely accessible to the general public for consumption but larger scale farming cooperatives. For these reasons, consumers must continue to actively educate themselves and understand that although Fair Trade seems to be the best option for the general public, due to its access and current connection to the most amount of farmers that is not to say that in the future there will not be better options that arise.

Therefore, although currently supporting Fair Trade would make the most positive impact, I believe consumers should continue to explore the best options even if other organizations may surpass the work of Fair Trade in the future. Furthermore, I understand that not all consumers may have access to the resources to educate themselves on these complicated issues nor the time to do so. For these reasons, some may argue that the responsibility falls on corporations to make the ethical decision easier for consumers by making products more affordable and accessible. In some respects, I agree with this argument, as I mentioned earlier, Fair Trade holds the responsibility to be more transparent by providing consumers with an accurate and detailed description of the farm and manner in which the coffee they are purchasing was harvested.

However, I think that it is important to note, that regardless of whether or not Fair Trade products become more affordable, without the consumer actively choosing Fair Trade products and understanding the importance of the purchasing of these commodities none of these organizations would be sustainable for the future. So yes, the role of the consumer matters, but so does the role of Fair Trade to bring transparency to the consumer and fulfill its mission of instilling positive change for all farmers that are affiliated with the organization by inspiring consumers to use their influence to establish environmental and social change.

Farmer Responsibility

As much as Fair Trade regulation holds the responsibility to establish consumer transparency, the farmers that maintain Fair Trade regulation also are an integral part of implementing the organization’s mission. Farm owners and workers hold the responsibility to actively carry out the regulations which Fair Trade designation requires of them. Although I mentioned earlier that Fair Trade holds the responsibility to improve its means of supporting farmers by tailoring the process more towards the location where these farmers reside, once Fair Trade improves these practices, the farmers themselves are then obligated to make positive social change and comply with these standards that they have agreed to. Without farmer execution of the practices of Fair Trade, no social change would persist in the industry.

In conclusion, in regards to responsibility, there are a multitude of stakeholders who play a role in changing the issues which the coffee industry presents. For one, we as consumers hold the responsibility to make positive changes in our world when it comes to buying products that promote labor and environmental justice equally but also to educate ourselves in order to be active consumers. Furthermore, the Fair Trade organization holds the responsibility to be more transparent, in order to support the locations where the designation is not currently working such as in Rwanda and Uganda and to inspire consumer support by social outreach initiatives.

Through these methods, Fair Trade will consequently make the decision easier for consumers to subsequently make purchases which provide labor and environmental justice. Furthermore, farmer-owners and workers hold the responsibility to maintain the standards of regulation that they have agreed to. Without farmers actively remaining accountable and complying with these standards, the industry would not be able to progress forward and establish any positive social change towards the environment or labor justice in the future. Therefore, the success of Fair Trade in the future relies on a multitude of stakeholders and the responsibility to improve Fair Trade’s current practices is dependent on consumers, the organization itself as well as the farmers who are a part of it.


Through my research, I have come to the conclusion that coffee should be grown with attention to quality, sustainability, and equality for workers and the systems in which they work. Throughout my exploration of Fair Trade, my paper provides what I believe to be the best solution for creating methods which promote farmer equity, environmental justice and support for impoverished farming communities. By implementing an ethical framework, I have concluded that the responsibility to support the coffee industry relies on a multitude of stakeholders involved, including Fair Trade as a cooperative, farmers who maintain this regulation, and consumers of the product.

Based on the value of fairness, farmers and workers should be equally compensated but also treated fairly within the workplace. Beyond this, fairness should be an integral value guiding the discussion of the importance of respecting the environment in all decisions of the Fair Trade organization. Furthermore, the environment should be considered just as important of a stakeholder towards this issue as any other party involved. Therefore there must be a greater emphasis on how Fair Trade hopes to support environmental issues such as deforestation which are largely perpetuated by the coffee industry.

Secondly, the value of autonomy presents how we must establish a dialogue between farmers and members of the Fair Trade organization in order to consider the insufficiencies from both perspectives. Through these initiatives, Fair Trade will better be able to support farmers and consequently, farmers will subsequently be able to better support the organization. Lastly, autonomy also relates to the consumer and the responsibility that Fair Trade holds to providing transparent information to the public in order to enable these fully autonomous decisions. By providing this information to consumers, Fair Trade will better be able to sustain consumer support but also demonstrate the important role which consumers hold in being the vehicle in advancing the betterment of a wider group of farmers worldwide. By Fair Trade presenting this information to the public it then allows consumers to make an autonomous decision and actively help the industry improve.

Lastly, in terms of responsibility, the consumer holds the duty to recognize and educate themselves on the power that they hold to initiate positive change within the coffee industry through the products that they buy. Consequently, Fair Trade also holds the responsibility to continue to support and provide a more focused form of regulation towards different communities based on the needs of the individual farmers that work within these locations. Secondly, Fair Trade holds the obligation to be transparent with consumers in order to show why the organization needs their continued support while also pledging to continue to grow and expand their network of support to new farmers. Lastly, Fair Trade holds the responsibility to provide a larger emphasis on environmental issues within the coffee industry in order to stop their progression in the next coming years.

As described earlier improving Fair Trade starts with educating the public and establishing increased awareness on how our contributions to the economy actually do matter. Although I explained beforehand that there are apparent shortcomings to the Fair Trade organization, its potential benefits largely outweigh these negative drawbacks. However, that is not to say that Fair Trade remains perfect, in fact, the organization must also actively do its part to improve the current practices which do not conform to the mission of the non-profit. For these reasons, consumers must remain aware of how their money is spent and understand the practices of each coffee product that they purchase in order to make informed decisions. Furthermore, this is why it is so important to raise awareness about the issues which surround Fair Trade so that we can improve and innovate new solutions in the future.

In conclusion, I would like to now take you back which I used to start this paper, about the mundane activity of walking into a coffee shop. In conclusion, I leave you with this, you hold the power to make decisions on how you want to spend your money either to support systems of environmental and labor justice or to perpetuate the negative issues which they currently promote. Perhaps after considering my perspective, your experience in your local coffee shop will turn out a bit differently next time or at the very least you will think twice about your current purchasing habits and this paper will cause you to engage with your current perception of the world in a new way.  

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