Saturday, May 21, 2011

Free ≠ Fair, Redux

My favorite librarian sent me a link from the Brockton Enterprise web site that raises several geographic issues. The May 19 story is about Java Jive, a coffee shop in Missouri.

The first geographic question is why a local newspaper in Massachusetts is running a story about a local business in Missouri. The answer is that the conglomeration of local newspapers into national chains focused on cost reduction means that they sometimes run odd stories just to fill space cheaply . The very same story can be found in the May 18 online edition of the Neosho (Missouri)  Daily News. If the Enterprise had the kind of reporting staff it did a generation ago, it would not be scrounging stories from other papers in their network. That said, the selection of a coffee story reflects growing public interest in the subject.

The story describes Jive in Java, a small, independent coffee roaster that is moving from Neosho to a larger facility in Joplin. The story mentions several aspects of coffee care, gleaned from interviews with the company's owners. Several details about coffee seem to have been "lost in translation." One example is the roaster's apparent reference to the problem of "old" beans; another example is a common mistake that is of particular interest to me.

According to the article, Jive in Java's varieties include "free trade" coffee. As I wrote back in December, I encounter a lot of confusion between the terms free trade and fair trade. Anybody making an ethical claim about coffee intends to use "fair trade," as "free trade" refers to the status quo in an industry that is anything but fair to the vast majority of coffee farmers. Had the reporter had time and inclination for adequate research on this story, the nature of the business would be clear to the reader.

Reading between the lines of the story, it appears that this roaster travels to a larger coffee market in Kansas City, where he acquires a variety of beans, which he then roasts in various combinations and at various roast levels in order to achieve particular flavor profiles. Among these purchases from time to time may be some beans that are certified as fair trade. This may be a roaster for whom "fair trade is a flavor," rather than a commitment. Jive in Java does seem to be a company dedicated to the quality of its roasts, but the connection back to the land and farmers is not made clear in this article.

In fairness to the roaster, I tried to find more information. Java in Jive has a very weak web presence, including a non-functional web site and an outdated Myspace page. It is not listed among Missouri fair-trade roasters by TransFair, which is the certifying agency for the United States, though perhaps it is purchasing some portion of its beans from companies that are so certified.

In the end, this story reflects the current status of the coffee industry. In the context of a huge trade -- the biggest in the world after oil -- most of which is demonstrably unfair, we are looking for assurance that the coffee we buy is not part of the problem. That assurance can be in the form of certifications, other ethical models, or wishful thinking.

In the short term, I work on various fronts to promote fair trade, because I have seen the difference it can make in the lives of farmers and their children. For the longer term, however, this is not enough. We cannot certify our way out of the inequity of the current global trading system, as it applies to coffee, chocolate, bananas, or a host of other commodities and products.

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