Use consumerism for good by bringing fair trade coffee to Pittsburgh

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Fair trade coffee partnerships are economic relationships that exist to help out small-scale producers and farmers, many of whom work under poor economic conditions in southern hemisphere countries. A goal of fair trade coffee is to pay a fair price to producers rather than just organizations, which may include paying small-scale farmers up to 60 percent of pre-harvest financing or offsetting expensive costs needed to acquire fair trade certification and to cover transportation of coffee beans and laborers. Pre-harvest financing — paying a proportion of the cost of coffee up front — is part of a pact between producers and consumers to keep producers from acquiring debt, a major tenet of fair trade coffee.

Fair trade coffee partnerships are gaining ground in markets worldwide. Fair trade coffee is even gaining ground in our own Steel City, which is rumored to have the most coffee drinkers per capita in the nation. (Although undocumented, my own observations lead me to believe that 95 percent of these coffee drinkers are Carnegie Mellon students, 75 percent of whom are likely to be from the English department.) Still, a large percentage of consumers don’t know about fair trade coffee, and, by default, aren’t supporting it.

John Soluri, an associate professor in the history department at Carnegie Mellon, explained the complexities that arise when attempts are made at making fair trade coffee pacts a reality. On one hand, information about supporting fair trade coffee is not readily available, even at shops where it is sold. Consumers are not made aware of their responsibility to hold up their end of the deal — to support small producers and equitable trade worldwide.

Thus, I urge you to ask for fair trade coffee when you grab your next cup o’ joe — the vendor you go to might be able to brew it for you, or you could try to purchase a bag of fair trade coffee beans. Many local and independent coffee shops, such as La Prima Espresso (whose home is in the Strip District), are working to spread the word about fair trade coffee, and every cup you buy supports these partnerships and helps support small-scale producers.

If purchasing fair trade coffee can help sustain small producers, why isn’t it more readily available? Soluri elaborated on an unfortunate irony that exists in making fair trade coffee more accessible to Pittsburghers. As fair trade coffee is often more expensive than non-fair trade coffee, it is more likely to be supported by latte, cappuccino, and macchiato enthusiasts — fancy coffee drinkers. Essentially, more materialistic and pop-culture-ific coffee drinkers who prefer the higher-end, more expensive coffee at a place like Starbucks would probably be the most likely candidates to shell out the extra money for the more expensive fair trade coffee. The irony lies in the fact that trendy, powerful venues like Starbucks not only rarely support fair trade coffee, they even work in opposition to it by supporting middleman organizations that do not properly compensate producers.

Why are stores that are likely financially able to support fair trade coffee, such as Starbucks, not backing it more strongly? First of all, fair trade coffee is not as readily available as non-fair trade coffee in the United States due to the complex (and expensive) process of acquiring fair trade certification. But Starbucks, which recently upped its average prices by about 10 cents a beverage, seems to already be making a huge profit on drinks. Iced coffee, for example, costs $2.03 at the Starbucks on the corner of Forbes and South Craig, but only $1.50 at Coffee Tree Roasters on Walnut in Shadyside — a venue where almost all coffees are fair trade.

Starbucks does sell one variety of fair trade coffee in bean form and will agree to brew you a cup if you ask for it. But as a consumerist superpower, this seemingly profit-hungry corporation should be doing more work to broadcast the importance of fair trade coffee. Starbucks, frighteningly, seems to have the power to tell consumers what they should be drinking, whether it is through saliva-inducing names (Pomegranate Frappuccino, anyone?) or enticing packaging (such as shiny, multi-colored coffee bean bags placed alluringly in window displays). Why not harness this cultural power for good by introducing consumers to fair trade coffee and making it a commonly brewed product in stores?

I understand the argument that Starbucks might not be able to ensure the quality of drinks in franchise and corporate-owned stores due to potentially small quantities of available fair trade coffee. But if this is a question of quality versus morals, morals have to start winning in our society’s overly commodified popular culture.

Buying your coffee at shops like La Prima Espresso and Coffee Tree Roasters (instead of Starbucks) will help support fair trade coffee. “Going green” and “sustainable growth” cannot remain just trendy terms; we have to emphasize equity and transparency in trade to remain responsible as consumers — and as people.