ethical, fair trade, sustainable coffee
Meet the passionate brains behind several of the province's coffee fair traders—and learn why you should never turn down a cup of coffee from Yemen
In an industrial wasteland just on the Vancouver side of Boundary Road, in the shadow of Highway 1 north of First Avenue, a lime green storefront stands out conspicuously against the monotonous grey warehouses and low-rise office clusters.
Vancouver's fair trade coffee entrepreneurs
Coffee Talk – What makes your favourite cafe so great?
Becoming Fair Trade – A run down on the certification process.
Steam fogs the windows inside the Ethical Bean Café on this January morning as the espresso machines and milk frothers work double-time to serve up lattes and macchiatos to a lineup of customers that doesn’t seem to diminish, no matter how fast the twenty-something servers dish up the steaming drinks.
The lineup and the buzz of activity will remain constant throughout most of the day, Ethical Bean owner and president Lloyd Bernhardt tells me, shaking his head in disbelief. When he and partner Kim Schacte decided to expand operations into a new LEED-certified, carbon-neutral roastery, the café wasn’t envisioned as a social hub serving the warren of surrounding industrial buildings. The idea was more a sampling bar and training centre for the independent café owners who are Ethical Bean’s clients.
Three of BC's major fair trade coffee companies roast close to two million pounds of coffee a year. (Image: Flickr / Ian Sane)
Ethical and fair trade niche now wide-spread
The café’s unexpected success is testament to Vancouver’s seemingly insatiable demand for premium coffee. And, more specifically, Ethical Bean is catering to a niche within that market for ethically sourced, or fair trade coffee.
It’s a niche that has mushroomed throughout B.C. over the past decade: turn over a rock in B.C.’s backcountry, and you’re likely to find a free-spirited entrepreneur who has devoted his or her life to not only pursuing the perfect cup of coffee, but to redressing the balance between rich countries, where we happily pay upwards of $15 a pound for premium coffee, and the developing countries that grow it, where farmers often realize only pennies on the pound.
From Invermere to Nelson, to Saltspring Island, the air is filled with the nutty, slightly acrid smell of roasting beans as companies such as Kicking Horse Coffee, Oso Negro and Salt Spring Roasting Co. collectively churn out close to two million pounds of fair trade coffee a year.
The beans are roasted in small batches, each bag is sealed by hand, and the raw beans are often hand-selected by owners who visit the growers in person, forging relationships with families and communities, guaranteeing that a fair portion of the $15 you and I pay goes toward schools, business development, and other community benefits.
Organic coffee beans are roasted in small batches and often hand-selected by owners. (Image: Flickr / Don Hankins)
These fair trade coffee roasters aren’t your typical entrepreneur; they aren’t driven by business plans charting multi-year growth curves. There seems to be something about coffee – and about B.C. – that attracts the pure at heart, for whom there’s nothing more important than a fair deal, a superb cup of coffee, and the opportunity to enjoy life in B.C.’s spectacular natural setting.
Making a difference in the world with fair trade coffee
But are they really making a difference? Have these fair trade pioneers spawned an uprising of consumer awareness and are they making a significant difference in the developing countries that feed our conspicuous consumption? Or is the fair trade logo on a bag of coffee just another marketing ploy, soothing the conscience of oblivious consumers?
In Canada, the most common mark of fair trade is the black and white logo sanctioned by Transfair Canada. Transfair is the Canadian licensing body for fair trade Labelling Organizations International, commonly referred to as FLO.
In order to use the logo and label its coffee as “fair trade certified,” a roaster has to agree to abide by a set of standards devised by FLO, and to submit to regular audits to ensure compliance. These standards demand that buyers deal only with small farmers that have formed member-controlled co-op type organizations, and whose workers are organized, typically in unions.
Tools of the barista. (Image: Flickr / Pen Waggener)
FLO also determines a minimum “fair” price to be paid to the co-ops for green coffee beans, currently sitting at about US$1.25 a pound. It also adds a “fair trade premium” of US $0.10 a pound, which goes to the co-op, to spend on community development as it sees fit. (If a roaster would also like its beans to be certified organic, FLO will tack on an additional US$0.20 premium, and ensure that the beans meet FLO organic standards.)
“Really what we’re talking about is building up firms in the form of co-operatives,” explains fair trade Canada spokes-person Michael Zelmer. He traces FLO certification back to the 1980s, when large-scale political and economic reforms, particularly in Central America, were undermining a history of state support for farming cooperatives.
“There was a historical moment there,” he says. “Farmers could possibly take advantage of some of the deregulation that was occurring by being able to grab more of the supply chain, or they could just fail completely because the supports that had been there for cooperatives were being knocked out from under them and large companies were then able to move in.”
Level Ground's coffee is 'direct fair trade' with no middleman
At the extreme end of the local fair trade coffee movement is Level Ground Trading Ltd. of Victoria, which eschews FLO certification, and instead takes pains to label its coffee “direct fair trade.”
Co-owner Stacey Toews is concerned about exploitation of developing- world farmers, but doesn’t see the culprit as the World Bank or other agents of deregulation; he places blame on the brokers who act as middlemen between farmers and retailers. “Every broker makes money by buying low and selling high, and the fair trade movement hasn’t really corrected that problem,” says Toews.
To truly qualify as fair trade, according to Toews, a coffee roaster has to buy directly from the source: “The idea of fair trade is you collapse the trade train, personalize and humanize the trade, and in so doing you make a connection between the consumer and the producer.”
Fair trade certification is fine, says Toews, but it only sets a minimum standard: “It’s like saying we’ve always paid minimum wage in B.C. The government sets a price, but that doesn’t mean it’s livable; it means it’s legal.”
The danger with certification, says Toews is that seeing the logo on a bag of coffee can lead to complacency. The problem isn’t the small roasters, many of whom are already committed to premium quality coffee and treating their suppliers fairly; it’s the big corporations that can simply factor the minimum certification standards into their business plans.
“People need to look to Europe, where the biggest players in the market are the very companies whose practices sparked the rise of the fair trade movement: global multinationals seen as unethical,” says Toews.
“They’re the ones best equipped to secure masses of product by meeting the minimum fair trade prices. Big volumes just squeaking under the bar are being recognized as fair trade – and consumers are buying it en masse because it’s the least expensive ethical make-me-feel-good product.”
Roasters require a reliable and trustworthy broker as the go-between
While none would deny that there’s room for exploitation in the broker’s spread between buy and sell prices, many local fair trade roasters rely on brokers to navigate the complexities of global trade and describe trusting relationships built over the years.
“If a direct-trade model made more sense to us, we would do that,” says Ethical Bean’s Lloyd Bernhardt. “But we import from eight countries, with different players in each one. Brokers charge five to ten cents a pound, and for that they pre-finance the purchase, handle the logistics and paperwork, and shoulder the risk of the contract; if it’s delayed, I still have a contract with him to supply that coffee. It’s a tricky job. And they’ve got the contacts with the co-op; if we want to go down and meet the people, they can arrange that.”
Bernhardt keeps a close eye on the broker’s slice of the action. “We know what their spread should be,” he says. “We’ve fired brokers in the past, saying, No your coffee’s just too expensive; we know the money’s not going to the farmer – you’re just being greedy.”
Another fair trade roaster who describes a long-standing relationship with his bean broker is Oso Negro owner Jon Meyer, in Nelson. When he and a friend, Jim May, started roasting coffee in an attempt to supplement their seasonal forestry wages in 1993, they naively thought they’d do their own importing. “We were under the delusion that we could be the fair trade importer for Canada,” recalls Meyer, who has since bought out his partner.
Today Meyer entrusts the job of importing to a broker. “Anyone could befriend a farmer, strike up a relationship, and buy a container of coffee,” Meyer says. “But the farmer needs someone he knows will come back. That’s the broker’s job, their skilled profession: to understand the culture, and to represent to the farmer a consistent commercial contact.”
And on his end, Meyer says he relies on a broker to, first of all understand him and try to help him, and also to stay on top of the world market for specialty beans. “This morning, for example, I just bought 157 bags of Bolivian peaberry from a very small farm at one of the highest elevations that they have farms in Bolivia, and I feel extremely lucky to have bought that,” he says over the phone from Nelson.
Meyer says that about 92 percent of the coffee Oso Negro roasts is “fairly traded.” He has not opted for Transfair certification, and hence cannot legally label his coffee “certified fair trade.” Instead he relies on a number of alternate certifying agencies. If he finds an excellent bean from a source that has not been certified fair trade, he won’t hesitate to buy it as long as he’s confident it isn’t exploitative.
“I do roast non-fair trade from Yemen,” he says, “because it has a taste I enjoy. I can’t say no to Yemen just because they have an attitude and don’t want to be pushed around.” He explains that Yemeni coffee growers have no need for fair trade certification: their beans are among the best in the world, and are in short supply due to the extremely arid climate, so they have no trouble commanding top price.
(Image: Flickr / D'Arcy Norman)
Kicking Horse Coffee: saving the world, one cup of coffee at a time
Many of B.C.’s fair trade coffee roasters didn’t set out to save the world through coffee; they started out in pursuit of a superb cup of coffee and gradually moved toward both organic and fair trade beans as they became more available.
Elana Rosenfeld and her partner Leo Johnson moved to Invermere shortly after graduating from university in the early ’90s, primarily because they were attracted to the small town life and the spectacular setting of the Canadian Rockies. But coming from Montreal and its vibrant coffee culture, they missed one thing: “There was no good coffee in the grocery stores!” recalls Rosenfeld.
Spurred by their quest for a good cup of coffee, they opened their own café, then after taking a year off to travel the world, returned to Invermere to start Kicking Horse Coffee in 1996. Rosenfeld explains that there just wasn’t much fair trade and organic coffee on the market when they started out.
“We bought what we could,” she explains, “probably 10 per cent of our offering. We pushed our importer and pushed our retail accounts, and as supply grew and consumer demand grew, we switched our whole line to organic. But it was virgin territory back then.” Today Kicking Horse roasts about 50,000 pounds of beans a week, and all of it is Transfair certified organic and fair trade.
Rosenfeld explains that to her, free trade isn’t just about paying farmers a minimum price: “It’s about everything; it’s about how you do business. It’s a way to change people’s perception of what they consume, where it comes from, what the effects are.”
Fair trade certification can lead to big corporations simply factoring the minimum standards into their business plans. (Image: Flickr / Hyungki Roh)
But this is, after all, just coffee we’re talking about; can coffee change the world? “Sure, it’s about coffee,” Rosenfeld responds. “Life’s too short to drink the wrong cup of coffee, and it can be the wrong cup of coffee on a lot of different levels: the social element, the environmental element, and then just having a good cup of coffee.”
Salt Spring Coffee passionate for a good product
For Mickey McLeod, president and CEO of Salt Spring Roasting Co., it was the cosmopolitan influence of a San Francisco visitor to his home on Texada Island that set him on his quest for exceptional coffee. A self-described “country boy,” McLeod was raised on the Gulf Island, where as a boy “I was turned on to interesting things and cool people.”
In 1973, he met his future wife, Robbyn Scott who, coming from San Francisco, “had experienced the urban alternative environment,” an environment that included exposure to the world’s best coffees. “We met in ’73 on Texada,” McLeod recalls. “It clicked, and I was introduced to good coffee.”
Oddly enough, it was in a Starbucks that McLeod had the brainstorm that would become Salt Spring Roasting Co. Flipping through a catalogue, he came across an ad for a home roasting machine. “I thought, Wow this is great: we can get specialty coffee for ourselves – another level of excellence in our coffee consumption!”
For a while, Mickey and Robbyn shared their do-it-yourself brew with friends at their Saltspring home, then they expanded to open their own café. Finally they realized they could not only make a viable business of selling coffee, but could do some good as well.
“It started with a passion for a good product,” McLeod explains. “And the more we started investigating, we realized there’s a lot of deep value in this; we could combine a lot of our personal passion for coffee with our values for people and the environment. They could all be combined into this business.”
Today Salt Spring roasts about 650,000 pounds of beans a year, all of it certified fair trade. Mickey and Robbyn try to establish personal relationships with growers, and are personally involved with farmer co-ops in Nicaragua and Peru.
McLeod is particularly proud of Salt Spring’s most recent project: a LEED-certified “green campus” planned on Saltspring that will not only house the company’s roasting operations, but will, he hopes, serve as a training centre for sustainable business practices.
Organic, ethical and fair trade coffee is premium quality but less than 2% of market
Will a fair trade revolution sweep the global coffee trade and bridge the gap between developing and developed worlds? It’s unlikely.
Fair trade coffee accounts for just under two percent of the approximately 450 million pounds of coffee consumed in Canada every year, and that percentage isn’t expected to grow beyond the three-to-six-percent level it has plateaued at in Europe, where the fair trade movement is considerably more advanced.
The reason is simple: fair trade and premium quality go hand in hand; the industrial-grade brew destined for fast-food drive-throughs isn’t likely to inspire ethically minded entrepreneurs like Bernhardt, Rosenfeld, Meyer or Toews. The premium coffee that B.C.’s fair trade pioneers deal in comes from arabica beans, grown in small batches at high elevations, and those beans account for only about eight percent of world production – and only a small fraction of that amount finds its way to roasters committed to fair trade.
The sad fact is that the overwhelming global demand is for a cheap cup of industrial brew, and there’s no shortage of multinationals eager to meet that demand, driven by shareholders to squeeze the maximum profit out of every bean.
But that’s not to say B.C.’s fair trade coffee pioneers aren’t making a difference. Just ask any of the 24 Guatemalan schoolchildren whose pictures line the wall of Ethical Bean’s conference room. Or the 300 families in the coffee-growing region of Colombia that have seen their kids complete high school or university thanks to the Coffee Families Foundation funded by Level Ground’s coffee sales. Or the farmers in Peru who can make small improvements to their farms, like building a plastic roof for their drying area, or buying organic fertilizer, thanks to a premium paid by Salt Spring Roasting Co.
B.C.’s fair trade coffee roasters aren’t revolutionaries out to change the world. They’re just inherently decent folks who believe in treating their fellow human beings fairly and with dignity – and who appreciate a good cup of coffee. The challenge isn’t getting more logos on coffee bags; it’s finding more businesspeople like them – and more consumers who care enough to take the time to ask where their coffee came from