Thursday, March 13, 2008

It's Only Fair

Fair Trade Coffee has created quite the buzz recently. A number of small privately owned coffee shops have sprung up boasting fair trade only brews while Starbucks also leads the march with an entire line of shade grown and fair trade beans for your skinny latte. It’s clear that coffee, the largest food import in the U.S. comes at a high price for both the consumer and the coffee farmers.

Coffee and I have been best friends for many years now. He comforts me in the morning, warms my soul during the winter months and cools me down with ice and milk in the summer. One morning I woke up and realized that like millions of other Americans and pretty much everyone in Manhattan, I was addicted to coffee. I decided to kick the daily coffee habit and switch to tea. I recently noticed that while there was a good deal of fair trade coffee buzz, people we’re blindly buying tea from mass producers who may be severely underpaying their workers while they toil for long hours in the sun.

According to the Rainforest Alliance, India, China, Kenya Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Argentina, Brazil and other countries export large volumes of the dried and shredded leaf. Globally, about six million acres are planted in tea, most often in large plantations. The Rainforest Alliance certifies tea farms by making sure the farms take certain measures to protect the environment by practicing sustainable farming practices. One of the main concerns of tea crops is that they often take over as a monoculture replacing a biodiversity rich environment. Another similar company that certifies fair trade and organic products is Equal Exchange, the oldest and largest for profit Fair Trade Company in the US.

The primary reason the Fair Trade regulations were set up is to ensure that tea and coffee farmers receive a fair price and a decent living wage. According to, Guatemalan coffee pickers receive a minimum wage of less than three dollars a day only after reaching a one hundred pound quota. To fill these quotas, a report by ABC-affiliate KGO television in San Francisco recorded children as young as 6 years old working in the fields. The Fair Trade trend has caught on. According to today’s Wall Street Journal, nearly sixty-five million pounds of fair-trade coffee were imported into the U.S. in 2006; up 45% from the year before.

In terms of tea farms, the best tea company I found was PG Tips. On their website, here,, they claim that by 2010 all of their farms will be certified by the Rainforest Alliance. Their biggest farm, located in Kenya, is the Rainforest Alliance’s first sustainable tea farm. To combat Kenya’s present state of violence Unilever, PG Tip’s owner, has donated one million dollars as food relief for those suffering in Kenya.

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