Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Fair Trade Coffee: Brewed From Principles Of Faith

By RUTH E. DAVILA, Special To The Bulletin | Published April 2, 2009

In a global economy, even your morning cup of coffee has effects that ripple around the world. That message came as a wake-up call for a group attending Catholic Relief Services’ third annual fair trade weekend held in Americus, Feb. 27-28. This trade philosophy seeks to improve conditions for disadvantaged producers—farmers, workers and artisans—across diverse regions.

“We want people to know that economic justice is connected to the Bible and to Catholic social teaching and to the faith that they hold dear,” said Simone Blanchard, program officer of CRS’ Southeast Regional Office.

Some 17 attendees hailed from the dioceses of Atlanta, Savannah, Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla. While lodged at Koinonia, a farm cooperative with Christian roots, they took in a stream of discussions, videos, locally grown vegetarian meals and bouts of rain.

Exploring a hot topic in fair trade, the group visited Café Campesino, which roasts and sells coffee with origins spanning from Colombia to Ethiopia. There the roastery’s spirited president, Tripp Pomeroy, explained how to channel consumer dollars into hope.

“If you recognize that most of the world lives in severe poverty, and if that matters to you, fair trade coffee—in any shape or form—is by far the one decision you can make that, at the very least, will do no harm to the current situation but most likely will start making a difference in the lives of farmers and the global system as we see it,” Pomeroy said.

Aligned with Catholic principles of global solidarity and development, CRS supports over a dozen fair-trade coffee vendors, as well as many partners that sell handcrafts and chocolate.

Blanchard, who led the CRS excursion, said the idea is to recognize the people behind the products.

“Farmers and producers are anonymous, which facilitates their exploitation,” she said.

While each producer and buyer is unique, fair trade is grounded in common premises. Foremost is to guarantee a fair price for producers. To achieve this, fair trade workers often form cooperatives to boost their selling capacity and negotiating power.

Fair trade buyers also band together, viewing commerce holistically. The goal is community progress, rather than monetary gain. They become involved in sellers’ lives, often providing pre-financing (up to 60 percent), development loans, social services and, in many cases, prayer.

Businesses like Café Campesino initiate open contracts to protect farmers. This way, if the market price goes up, the producers can match their selling price to the current rate, even on pre-orders.

“You could say it boils down to dollars and cents, but it’s also about human relationships,” said Pomeroy. “When we visit farmers, one of the last things they leave us with is, ‘Don’t forget about us.’”

TransFair USA certifies fair trade products such as coffee, tea and cocoa as well as rice, sugar, honey, vanilla, fruit, flowers and even wine. Criteria range from fair labor conditions to environmental sustainability, prohibiting the use of 12 toxic pesticides. Though many fair trade products are organic, it is not a requirement.

Despite its feats, fair trade has a challenging road ahead. Pomeroy admitted that the common practice of child labor has not been addressed yet—mainly because it is vital for families’ sustenance. Advocates hope that by establishing a fair system, better conditions will evolve over time.

Another hurdle is to correct misconceptions about fair trade. The term is often mistaken for “free trade,” which relates to transnational policies on importing/exporting.

“We don’t want Catholics to just buy differently,” Blanchard said. “We want them to understand why they buy differently and be able to explain that to someone else.”

For example, not all fair trade providers are created equal. An important distinction is that CRS only partners with companies that are 100 percent fair trade, meaning all of their products are fairly traded. Some CRS products may cost slightly more because a percentage of profits is reinvested in grants to help fair trade cooperatives flourish abroad and to grow the U.S. market.

To give participants a taste of the system, Blanchard organized simulations. The first scenario exposed the isolation and abuse farmers face in conventional selling, while the second highlighted fair trade’s transparency and aim for a higher good.

Most attendees, like Brian Johnson, belong to JustFaith, a 30-week U.S. adult formation program. Though he was already familiar with economic justice, he took away a deepened perspective.

“(Fair trade) is not a brand, it’s a movement. And it’s something we should all be actively engaged in,” said Johnson, a parishioner of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta.

CRS suggests several ways of involvement, such as hosting events, urging churches to purchase fair trade products or selling fair trade chocolate through school fundraisers.

A participant from Columbus, Berrien Zettler, plans to promote fair trade coffee in his network, starting with his Knights of Columbus chapter. For Zettler, a white civil rights activist, the trip hit home.

“Once again, I was able to see the effects of injustice in the world,” he said.

Minutes before he left Koinonia, the sun broke through the clouds, drying the ground on the cooperative that supported African-American farmers in the 1960s.

Zettler added, “It’s not the cost of a fair trade item that’s important. What’s important is the contribution that you’re making to community—to building what Martin Luther King called, ‘the beloved community.’”

For information on how to support Catholic Relief Services’ fair trade program, visit