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Five legit excuses for not buying fair trade coffee

By Pieta Woolley

You’re at the grocery store for your weekly shop. Faced with a wall of coffee — some featuring the swirly Fairtrade logo, others claiming non-certified ethical benefits and others listed for a fabulously low price — what do you choose?

For four decades, churches and their allies have urged caring Canadians to buy fairly traded coffee. For some, the taste of certified crema will always be a delight. For others, the chi chi brew has turned bitter.

So if you, like 98 percent of grocery shoppers and paper-cup guzzlers, don’t want to shell out for a daily dose of righteousness, here are some handy excuses.

1. Fair Trade is not a revolution

Nope. It’s a weak, capitalist market intervention that helps wealthy consumers feel good while achieving very little for coffee farmers. So writes Senegalese economist Ndogo Sylla, who slammed Fairtrade International in his 2014 book The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich.

2. You distain elitism

Do you seek out fair trade coffee at your local 10,000 Villages store? Are you willing to pay as much as double for ethical beans? Well, you’re in the minority. In spite of more than 40 years of activism on the part of churches and the secular left, just two percent of coffee sold in Canada has been fairly traded. The movement may be doomed because most Canadians either won’t — or can’t — make the more expensive choice.

3. You’ve already witnessed a better model

From 1962 until 1989, the International Coffee Agreement controlled exports and stabilized prices for all 25 million global coffee farmers. It wasn’t perfect, but it covered everyone, argues Canada’s foremost fair trade scholar, author and progressive leftie, Gavin Fridell. Currently, just three percent of coffee farmers benefit from the consumer-driven fair trade structure.

4. You don’t like how it tastes

You prefer the mild, creamy hit of a double-double coffee to the smokier, darker tang of most fairly traded brews. Canada’s sweetheart coffee chain, Tim Hortons, with 77 percent of the retail coffee market share, doesn’t do fair trade. Its non-certified “Partnership Blend” is sold in bags at some locations but never brewed. The executive director of Fairtrade Canada, Tom Smith, has hope that Timmies will come around. But we’re not there yet.  

5. Frankly, you don’t give a damn

Fridell, who is a critic of fair trade, still buys fairly-traded coffee. Why? “Because to not buy it is to concede to the idea that we’re just unethical consumers who don’t care,” he said. If that’s your choice, accept the system’s imperfections and buy fair trade, or admit that you are unethical and simply don’t care. Refusing to buy it becomes a pretty bold statement then. But if you’re comfortable with that, bang! It makes for a gutsy finale to your list of excuses.

Pieta Woolley is a freelance writer in Powell River, B.C. Her blog posts will appear on the first and last Friday of the month.

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