What a coffee plantation taught me about fair trade

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

If you’re anything like me, coffee is not just one of life’s little pleasures, it’s also a lifestyle. That sweet smell in the morning makes my mind go into a frenzy and when it’s time for that first sip I can’t help but feel as though everything is right in the world. But then when reason seeps its way back into my brain I am reminded that even something as perfect as my morning cup of coffee can sometimes come at a cost.

Now I am a student so admittedly, I am always looking for a way to cut costs and until recently, not knowing what Fair Trade meant fed right into my disinterest in paying more for what appeared to be the same product. I loosely understood Fair Trade = Good, social benefits, better working conditions, all things I had heard but somehow my consumption behaviour was still not affected.
While on a recent trip I was fortunate enough to tour a coffee plantation. This experience put me face to face with the costs associated with coffee which previously slipped my mind. Here are a few things that I have learned about the meaning of Fair Trade.

One of the large problems with coffee (and other products such as cacao) is that it has to be outsourced. Its specific growing conditions (warm climate, high altitude) mean that at least in Canada, it cannot grow locally. Coffee plantations must be sustained in regions around the equator which coincide with many of the developing countries, countries which may or may not have laws in place such as minimum wage for workers. A push for Fair Trade products can help with the creation of cooperatives which receive fairer prices that can be redistributed to laborers and the community which means a more sustainable local economy.

What completely eluded me were the environmental benefits of a Fair Trade System. By encouraging the development of cooperatives smaller scale agriculture is encouraged. This small scale plantation can be managed sustainably by using large trees for shade (which increases biodiversity and greatly reduces the need for mechanized irrigation systems). The use of nitrogen fixing trees and plants within a plantation can also eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers which can pollute water stocks in areas with low water security.      

Recently, the University of Ottawa was designated a Fair Trade campus! Although this policy is not perfect (chains like Tim Hortons, Second Cup and Starbucks can still sell their own products) it’s a great stride towards social and environmental equality. To celebrate this designation Food Services is hosting Fair Trade Campus Day on October 9th. They will be serving up Free Fair Trade Coffee to everyone with a reusable mug from 9am-11am at non-franchised retailers on campus.

Similarly, the Muggy Monday’s crew celebrates this designation every Monday by offering FREE Fair Trade coffee, tea and hot chocolate to all students with reusable mugs from 8am-12pm on the second floor of FSS. Now let’s push it a step further take initiative and responsibility for our own consumption behaviours, since for me seeing was believing I implore you to explore, do some research and consider that the extra cost for Fair Trade options truly makes a big difference!

To learn more about Fair Trade Products or the certification process, visit this website.
Check out our event for full list of retailers participating in Fair Trade Campus Day.

 ~Alice - outreach and volunteer coordinator

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