Certified (Un)Fair Trade Coffee

Arden Weiner


We are lucky to live a town where so many people are food conscious with an awareness of both what we are putting into our bodies, and where that food comes from. Boulder prides itself on its health-conscious population, and even beyond health, many people strive to support the local economy by buying fresh foods from Boulder County farmers through farmer’s markets and CSA shares. While we pay significant attention to the food that we purchase and consume, there is a lot to be learned about the coffee that 83% of Americans consume daily. As an avid coffee drinker, I wanted to educate myself about where my coffee comes from, and how to do my part in supporting the right brands of coffee.

Did you know that coffee is the world second largest commodity, only second to oil? It is a 20 billion dollar industry, upon which 100 million people rely for their livelihood! Interestingly, though, coffee farmers only make up 25% of people in the industry, which means that 75% are coffee distributers who are making 95% of the profits.  Coffee farmers often live devastating lives, and for the hundred hours of painstaking labor that they put into growing their beans each week, they receive such little compensation that they struggle to support themselves and their families. American’s desire for coffee is fueling the destruction of land in third world countries and poverty for small farmers across the globe.  

Developing countries are responsible for growing 90% of the world’s coffee, and due to the extreme increases in demand, 37 out of the 50 countries that produce most of our coffee suffer from the highest rates of deforestation. In fact, our extraordinary demand has resulted in a change in the way that they grow our coffee. Originally, coffee was shade grown. While shade grown plants do produce coffee at a slower rate, these trees are able to produce for 30 or more years. Farmers had no choice but to switch to sun-grown coffee beans because of the unmanageable increase in demand. Sun-grown coffee plants are able to grown at a much quicker rate, but these plants are only able to produce for 15 years, cutting the lifespan in half. Coffee grown in the shade is made subject to great nutrients, and protection from its canopy cover. Sun grown coffee lacks protection and is more exposed to the elements, including pesticides and fertilizers, chemicals that can transfer to the beans in our morning cup of coffee. The deforestation touched on above has come as a result of farmers needing to remove the shade to hasten the coffee plants growing cycle. If we continue to support organizations that promote sun- grown coffee, the devastation inflicted on our planet will continue.

In order to fully understand the vastness of the ‘unfair’ coffee trade system, it is helpful to view it as an extraordinarily large empire resting on a small, broken foundation. The foundation represents the developing countries that are home to the farms that produce 90% of our world’s coffee. On this cracked foundation, a 20-billion-dollar coffee industry has been built. Since the foundation remains the same size, with little to no improvement, the empire only has room to build upwards, weakening the foundation more and more as the size and weight of the coffee empire increases.

Lack of awareness fuels consumers continued support of a system so corrupt and unfair.  Three and a half billion cups of coffee are consumed daily worldwide. Of those 3.5 billion cups, 2.8 billion of them come from beans grown in developing third world countries. In these countries, the coffee farmers earn, on average, $1,000 annually. To understand the unfair and uneven nature of the coffee trade, compare their $1,000 yearly wages with the whopping price tag of $1,200 that an average American spends at coffee shops per year. The underlying issue? Coffee farmers are being taken advantage of in third world countries, and their stories are kept in the dark, shrouded by a lack of representation. Educating ourselves is the first step towards supporting a healthier coffee economy.

A move in the right direction is the implementation of Fair Trade Coffee, but along with these two steps forward, we are brought one step back. Fair Trade Coffee aims to create an alternative coffee market that improves farmers’ wages and working conditions. It works to support small-scale farmers by eliminating the middle man, and giving them the money that they rightfully deserve in exchange for their crops. Buying Fair Trade Coffee helps your money go into the hands of the hardworking farmers, which helps them support their families while also giving them the opportunity to run a more environmentally friendly farming operation. The problem with Fair Trade is that as it becomes more prevalent, it has become easier for coffee distributors to claim their coffee as fair trade when it truly isn’t. We can avoid these ‘Unfair’ Trade coffees by doing research about certain brands before we purchase their beans. As sustainable coffee is on the rise, various other certifications and verifications have been implemented that you can read about here.

To make shopping for Fair Trade beans a little easier,  I have compiled a small list of Fair Trade Coffees that are available in Boulder County.


Conscious Coffee:

“Coffee is one of the world's most valuable commodities, second only to oil. That's why we believe this bean has enormous potential. At every point along the supply chain - from growing and roasting, to brewing and sipping - we have the chance to change lives and protect this precious environment. At Conscious Coffees, we are passionate about running our business as responsibly and ethically as we know how in order to bring you a great cup of coffee that you can feel good about.”

Ozo Coffee:

“We "direct source" organic, fair trade coffees and pay a fair living wage in an effort to support a sustainable coffee livelihood in developing countries. Our attention to sustainable practices in growing regions and here at home have earned us strong growth and recognition as an award-winning Roaster-Retailer.”



“We believe Fair Trade and Organic labeling initiatives to be symbiotic, because what is good for the workers is good for trees, birds, and our shared environment.”

Laughing Goat:

“The Laughing Goat is world-class espresso locally roasted & beautifully crafted. Featuring premium estate, shade-grown, organic and Fair Trade certified coffee from the Kaladi Brothers of Denver.”


        In the past years, I have become increasingly aware of industrialized food and what I put into my body. The problems that many of us have been trying to get away from in regards to industrialized food, are the same problems that we face with our world’s coffee beans. If we can all make the decision to purchase our coffee beans consciously, our efforts can have a profound impact. We need to work together to help sustain our environment, while making sure that the hardworking small farmers are getting the compensation that they deserve. For a brilliant illustration of how “Coffee Gets From the Farmer to Your Cup” click here.