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Hugh Wesley

The new kid in the coffee aisle

A two-part series on coffee and global justice concludes with a look at the impact of fair trade on Canadian consumers

By Mike Milne

Thanks to fictional coffee farmer Juan Valdez -- portrayed by a series of actors for four decades -- Colombia is likely the first coffee-growing country most North Americans would name. Thanks to a real coffee farmer, Gemede Robe, Ethiopia is now on world coffee drinkers' radar. The grizzled 85-year-old spoke out and appeared on posters last year as part of Oxfam's successful campaign to help Ethiopia secure ownership and licensing rights to its regional coffee variety names.

Canadians love coffee and drink an average of 90 litres a year per person. But even with Colombia's marketing efforts and Oxfam's justice campaign, most of us don't know where our favourite beverage comes from, or what the conditions are like in the typically poor parts of the world where our coffee originates. Coffee means Tim Hortons from one of the company's 2,758 stores, or mainstream brands such as Maxwell House, Folgers or Taster's Choice from the supermarket.

The fair trade movement is changing that by showing coffee-drinking consumers how paying more -- sometimes a little, sometimes a lot (see chart, opposite page) -- can make a big difference to poor farmers in coffee-producing countries and result in a better-tasting brew on the breakfast table here in Canada. Fair trade certification guarantees coffee buyers that farmers are paid a fair price; that the workers who process coffee are paid and treated fairly; and that profits earned when the coffee is sold return to the individuals and communities where it originated. Most of Canada's fair trade coffee comes from Latin America, but imports from Africa are growing.

Corporate branding ensures consumers that prices will be stable and taste predictable but hides where the coffee comes from and allows companies to buy their beans anywhere prices are low.

A new study by two Richard Ivey School of Business researchers in London, Ont., found consumers will pay more for products that are fairly produced and will avoid companies seen to be operating unethically. As the fair trade movement gathers momentum, coffee companies are starting to feel the heat.

Tim Hortons, for example, claims that meeting stringent fair trade certification regulations is too expensive for farmers. It adds that too few fair trade coffee beans are available to begin with. The chain says its "sustainable coffee partnership" projects help the "fight against poverty" among coffee farmers.

Starbucks introduces consumers to actual coffee producers on its website. But despite being one of the world's largest buyers of certified fair trade coffee (18 million pounds in 2006), it still purchases most of its beans on the open market. Starbucks' promotional videos and coffee bags focus on corporate-backed projects that are "doing good," rather than efforts funded by fair trade dividends.

Canadian fair trade coffee com-panies have grown exponentially in the last decade, tapping into a market that seems to demand firmer assurances that farmers will, in fact, get a better deal. Countless small roasters and coffee houses buy their beans from fair trade sources and rely on the fair trade system to return dividends to farmers.

Some large roasters go further. Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-operative of Wolfville, N.S., spends 10 percent of its profits on projects helping coffee growers. It also sells Breaking the Silence fair trade coffee that raises money for human rights and development work by a Guatemalan-Canadian solidarity network sponsored by the United Church's Tatamagouche Centre.

Fair-trade roaster Planet Bean of Guelph, Ont., sells various blends but is putting increased emphasis on its coffee's origin and quality. "Coffee has become the new wine," says Planet Bean executive Byron Cunningham. "And when we can buy high-quality beans, the farmer makes more money." A co-operative, Planet Bean was the first Canadian roaster to sign a licensing agreement with Ethiopia last year, allowing Planet Bean to use names such as Yirgacheffe to denote varieties of coffee from specific regions in the East African country.

British Columbia-based Level Ground Trading, which sells coffee in the Victoria area and in Ten Thousand Villages shops across Canada, promotes "direct fair trade" with growers. Its Café Awasa comes from a co-operative in Ethiopia's Sidama region, where farmers receive higher-than-fair-trade prices and dividends that finance special development projects.

More consumers opting for fair trade coffee translates into more fair trade coffee co-operatives in Ethiopia as well as Latin America. But most Canadians still buy their coffee in supermarkets. Making inroads there could boost fair trade volumes significantly. Canadian grocery giant Loblaws now stocks fair trade coffee from Kicking Horse Coffee of Invermere, B.C., in many stores. Loblaws' own President's Choice Organics Fair

Trade coffee is also available. The blend of beans from Peru and Ethiopia "is part of our corporate social responsibility platform," says a Loblaws spokesperson, but it also reflects "what the consumers are looking for."

With Loblaws leading the way, can Tim Hortons be far behind? Company spokesperson Rachel Douglas won't say no. "We've always been a consumer-driven company and we listen to our customers," she says. "So we'd never say never."

Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency.

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