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Coffee Price in Athens

Athens known as a haven for "fair trade" coffee

But some experts say that label doesn’t always mean what consumers think it means.

Some local coffee vendors are committed to bean varieties that come with good intentions — choosing to purchase more-expensive fair trade beans.

However, some allege the impact of those fair trade beans is unclear, or that consumers are unsure of what they’re paying more for.

Chris Pyle, owner of Donkey Coffee and Espresso, 17 W. Washington St., said a survey conducted at his shop found many of his customers were unaware of the definition of fair trade.

Donkey only sells fair or direct trade coffee beans, meaning farmers are paid a higher wage and none of the beans are a product of child or forced labor.

Pyle estimated 80 percent of Donkey’s customers come to the shop simply because they like the taste of the coffee, though he also estimated that only 10 percent of overall customers have an idea of what fair trade means.

Products with a fair trade stamp have been certified by one of several agencies that check coffee bean farms and exporters to ensure no child or forced labor is being used and that farmers are paid significantly more for their beans than they would make on the open market, according to a study from the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit organization.

According to the International Coffee Organization’s website, a pound of coffee was valued $1.48 as of Feb. 9.

Understanding that definition is crucial for Court Street coffee drinkers, Pyle said, as fair trade beans are costly — sometimes two to three times more expensive than non-certified coffee beans.

But according to the CGD study, consumers might be misled about where that extra cash is going.

The study, written in 2012, concluded fair trade farmers receive “relatively limited direct benefits,” because most farms can only sell a small percentage of their crops for fair trade prices, and that labor standards on fair trade farms aren’t “rigorous.”

However, Jennifer Gallegos, director of coffee and business development at Fair Trade USA, a nonprofit organization, said some are misplacing their concerns about fair trade.

“Fair trade is not the problem. The market is the problem,” Gallegos said, adding world coffee prices haven’t changed naturally in 15 years. “Consumers have to be willing to pay more. Your local coffeehouse needs to be willing to pay more.”

Gallegos said she believes critics place too much emphasis on the economic impact of fair trade and ignore the potential social impact. Gallegos said fair trade systems work to “get more money and more empowerment back to producers.”

Pyle said there are problems with the fair trade system.

“Really when you say that word it … could mean anything these days,” Pyle said. “The idea of fair trade, I think, is awesome, but how it has been played out lately in corporate America is detestable.”

Julia Paxton, an economics professor at Ohio University and expert in agricultural economics, agreed the impact of fair trade goods varies, but took a more neutral stance on fair trade practices.

"It's just people willing to pay a little bit extra to make sure it gets into the pockets of the farmers and workers. The extent to which that actually happens varies," Paxton said.  

She pointed out that fair trade coffee is still very much a niche market.

"If Donkey Coffee is willing to have a contract with a coffee growing village ... it's probably not affecting the world price of coffee.  If demand for fair trade coffee continues to increase, there could be secondary effects for coffee and related markets."

While Pyle agreed there are problems with the fair trade labeling system, he maintained Donkey is committed to the idea of social justice, not fair trade specifically.

“No matter what fair trade becomes ... the idea of fair trade is what we’re after,” Pyle said. “Our whole thing is social justice. I’m not committed to fair trade, I’m committed to justice.”


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