Many mornings I’ve watched my mother close her eyes in reverence as the first espresso sip passes her lips, savoring a quiet moment with friends, the daily paper, or simply enjoying the calm before a very full day. Like mother like daughter, I wholeheartedly share in this indulgent pleasure, but struggle a bit with my eco-progressive integrity. Coffee is a pretty nasty crop. One of the world’s most popular commodities after petroleum, coffee shares some other qualities with the number one top seller: it’s an environmental and social nightmare. *Warning: Those wishing to enjoy their benign addiction in peace may wish to skip ahead—though perhaps a more informed coffee populace might demand a cleaner bean….Coffee CatastropheThe topic of coffee, poverty, and the environment would fill volumes. In a nutshell: deforestation, pollution, and social degradation. For rapid, maximum yields, most coffee is grown in full sun on vast tracts of denuded land, generally in tropical, developing regions. Massive amounts of lush rainforest are razed to make room for coffee plantations—huge monocrops saturated with toxic petrochemicals that endanger workers, pollute waterways, and leave a legacy of lifeless land. Coffee is shade tolerant, and can be grown sustainably under the natural forest canopy, but full sun cultivation is faster and more immediately profitable. When prices are low and people are desperate, there is little incentive to grow sustainably. Prices are indeed low. So low in fact as to be termed a “coffee crisis.” A huge spike in coffee production in the early ‘90s’ lead to a global production glut, driving prices down to record lows and leaving hundreds upon thousands of farmers in ruin. Prices fell below $1.00 per pound, hovering somewhere around $.50. Less than half of this reaches farmers and workers, the true wage earners that keep coffee in our cups. Price slump notwithstanding, consumers still shell out $3.00 for a latte. A fat profit flows into someone’s pockets; we know it isn’t the hard working coffee pickers. So what’s a socially conscious java junky to do? Enter Fair TradeFortunately there is a way to have your cup and drink it (guilt free), too. It is called “Fair Trade,” a way of ensuring that farmers and laborers receive a livable wage for their product. Without this assurance, many coffee producers’ revenues fall short of their production costs. This, in turn, leads to the continued exploitation of natural resources in a desperate attempt to grow more faster: a sentence of lifelong poverty. Fair Trade promises farmers a minimum wage of $1.26 a pound, regardless of market fluctuations. Better wages equal more humane lifestyles, allowing farmers and laborers to feed their families, establish stable relationships with overseas buyers, provide education for their children, and adopt more sustainable farming practices. On the consumer end, Fair Trade allows us to enjoy a cup of coffee without contributing to inhumane conditions known as “sweatshops in the field.”Fair Trade has become a staple on natural food shelves, but isn’t yet easy to find at your quick stop coffee shop. While a handful of Westside java joints sell Fair Trade beans, fewer still actually brew it in-house. Urth Caffe and Groundwork Coffee regularly feature Fair Trade drip, but most smaller independent stores have limited reach – and limited effect. Chain Reaction?The real challenge is to encourage larger, multinational companies to take the lead and make Fair Trade readily available to consumers. The tremendous market power wielded by corporate chains affords them the unique opportunity (responsibility?) to make sweeping changes quickly. But there must be a commitment to values in addition to the bottom line: fairness, justice, community, and equality. Values we are increasingly coming to appreciate and demand from multinational corporations as integral to a long-term vision of human and environmental sustainability. Our role as buyers is key. A collective consumers voice, while still faint, has begun to sound a call. Does your local café offer Fair Trade? If not, exercise your pocketbook power and register your request. My next column will examine an encouraging model of effective grassroots activism dubbed the “Starbucks Challenge.” For a sneak preview, a wealth of excellent commentary on Fair Trade issues, and tips for how to get involved, visit the website of local activist and campaign co-founder Green LA Girl: www.greenlagirl.com.And finally (the temptation here is too great to ignore), when you do fill up on Fair Trade, why not BRING YOUR OWN cup?
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