We dont serve Fairtrade coffee - and that’s OK

Last month the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) asked the food industry to “Serve Good Coffee” - part of their Support Global Farmers initiative for February. The February campaign was step two on their Food Made Good  programme for 2017. These are monthly initiatives that focus on different aspects of the food industry and set goals for businesses to achieve that will make their practices more sustainable.

When the SRA say good coffee, they’re not talking about that lovely caramel flavour that comes from a really good cup. They mean buying coffee that has been produced by people who are paid properly and can work in safety, and that was grown without having a negative effect on the natural environment.

As members of the SRA, we’re following the Food Made Good campaign and making sure we make all the necessary commitments to work as a sustainable business, so of course that includes thinking about how we source our coffee.

On top of that, we get a lot of questions from customers about where we buy certain ingredients. A lot of them especially want to know if we use Fairtrade products.

So this post is about unpicking what Fairtrade is, what ethical sourcing means, and how we meet our responsibilities to treat the people we buy from with respect.

Is Just Hospitality's coffee Fairtrade?

To get the full picture on the coffee we use, our Operations Manager Alison spoke to Grind, our coffee supplier, about whether their coffee is Fairtrade and how they work with farmers and producers. Here’s what they said:

We're dedicated to really high ethical standards at Grind; a thorny subject in the coffee world as there's a lot of misinformation out there!

None of our coffees are Fairtrade; which isn't a bad thing. Fairtrade is a financial safety net for farmers, guaranteeing them a base price per lb of green coffee. This price is low but does protect farmers in case of economic shifts and drought etc. We work with importers who always pay farmers significantly more per lb than the Fairtrade price.”

What is Fairtrade?

This might need a bit more explaining. The Fairtrade label was created in 1997 so that you, the consumers, would know the food company selling you a product had paid a “fair” price for products like coffee, bananas, chocolate and sugar - ingredients that were famously bought for very low prices, while many of those who owned or worked on the farms lived in poverty. The goal was to help communities producing these ingredients develop and for the farmers to benefit from the success of the companies who sell the products to us.

So how do companies get that Fairtrade logo? Well, the process is complicated. They have to buy from a Fairtrade co-operative that farmers join voluntarily. The farmers are paid a guaranteed minimum price for coffee, but also have to stick to certain standards such as not using child labour, and limiting their use of pesticides and genetically modified products. There are also rules about using certain profits to invest in the farming communities by building schools and services.

Is Fair-trade coffee organic?

Fairtrade has certain rules around the use of pesticides and environmental sustainability, but organic certification comes from different regulators. That means that while some Fairtrade coffee will be organic, the Fairtrade logo doesn’t guarantee that.

It’s also worth noting that organic coffee is not necessarily always the most sustainable type. As Grind explained: “The farms we work with are not always 'Organic' certified. Again this isn't a bad thing. We guarantee that (the farms we work with) are environmentally sustainable, something our importers always stipulate from their farmers. Unfortunately there are a few diseases affecting coffee plants these days that organic pesticides simply cannot ward off; in fact some of the farmers we buy from were almost bankrupted a few years ago when they lost 90% of their trees due to leaf rust in Guatemala.

They use inorganic pesticides minimally, and only when absolutely necessary, while simultaneously using lots of practices that aren't required for organic certification, but which have a very positive effect on their ecosystem.”

Why wouldn't a company use Fairtrade?

Fairtrade is very popular with large food companies because it creates an easy way to buy ingredients that meet a minimum ethical standard. However, lots of smaller coffee brands choose not to take on the Fairtrade logo.

One reason is that the minimum price can at times be lower than the market value of the coffee. Another reason is that small coffee roasters, especially ones focussed on quality, might choose to work more closely with the producers to maintain standards, rather than going through a cooperative. You also have to pay a fee to use the Fairtrade logo, which small companies can’t always do.

Meanwhile many small farmers struggle to keep up with the requirements set by the Fairtrade cooperatives, especially since they will have to meet those standards but still sell a lot of their coffee for less than the Fairtrade price, because global demand for Fairtrade products is low.

Finally, many coffee roasters might feel that the strict rules that Fairtrade apply to their farmers aren’t appropriate to every situation, and doesn’t always help the farmer. For example, Grind explained to us why their coffee is not always certified organic.

Not having a Fair-trade logo doesn't mean the product is unethical

This is the big takeaway. While consumers are used to seeing the Fairtrade logo as a mark that the suppliers have been treated well, many smaller sellers in the UK choose not to use Fairtrade for many reasons but still take the welfare of coffee producers and sustainability of the industry very seriously - just like Grind.

In short, we buy coffee in the top 0.1% of quality worldwide, through importers with incredibly high standards of environmental sustainability and conditions for farmers.”

How do you know if a company is really ethical?

Without that Fairtrade label, how can you tell that a given coffee brand is as ethical as they say they are? Lots of companies use phrases like “ethically sourced”, but the big difference between Fairtrade and “ethically sourced” is that the Fairtrade label is copyrighted. You have to get permission to use it. Companies don’t need permission to claim their products are ethical, so it’s a phrase that could mean anything they want it to mean.

Well, there’s no shortcut to getting to the truth. The only way to know for sure is to do your research. Plenty of smaller coffee roasters and brands are on social media and will talk about initiatives they’re involved in to keep their product fair and sustainable. For example Grind pointed us towards the Blueprint Project , an initiative spearheaded by Falcon Coffees, one of their importers, to develop sustainable supply chains.

So that’s our jumping off point to the SRA’s Coffee Made Good campaign for February! We’re very excited to make sure our coffee supply chain is responsible, sustainable and safe, and to carry on with the Food Made Good programme for the rest of the year. Stay tuned for more!