The Secret Ingredient for a Great Cup of Coffee: Hint, It's Not What You Think

03/20/2015 03:56 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015

There are definitely some myths out there about sustainable products, and to be blunt, how good they are. Some people wonder whether something so focused on its mission can look great, taste great, feel great. (Apparently locally-grown wheat grass smoothies, raw yeast balls and sandpaper hemp pants don't float everyone's boat.) As it turns out, in the coffee world, sustainability not only goes hand-in-hand with quality, they're integrally linked. And Fair Trade has become an important vehicle for helping farmers improve crop quality and build strong relationships with quality-forward buyers. In fact, today nearly 100% of Fair Trade Certified coffees are specialty grade.

Sorry to turn your world upside down, but it's true: sustainable practices and thriving farmers are the secret ingredients to your mind-blowingly delicious cup of joe. Here are a few reasons why:


1.) Poverty perpetuates lower quality

According to the United Nations, about 2.8 billion people survive on less than $2 a day, and a majority of them work in agriculture. Coffee farmers are no exception. Incomes are not only low, they're unpredictable. In late 2013, and again in early 2015, coffee prices plummeted to historic lows. This wild market volatility, combined with already low prices, makes farmers vulnerable. They can't plan for the future, can't make investments in their farms, and can't afford to feed their families.

On the financial roller coaster that is the coffee market, farmers play the game of survival. Investing in quality is a luxury many cannot afford.

That's why approaches like Fair Trade are game-changers. It's the only certification with a guaranteed minimum price to protect against major price dips. With this safety net, farmers can meet their immediate needs and find the financial stability required to make important investments in quality.

  • A Guaranteed Minimum Price ($1.40/lb): When the coffee market price is above this, the minimum is a non-factor, but when prices dip below the threshold (as they are now), Fair Trade is an insurance policy. It also allows farmers to access credit, which is a big deal in small-scale agriculture.

  • Community Development Premiums: Farmers also earn $0.20/lb for community investment, plus an added $0.30/lb if the coffee is also organic. Of this, 25% is earmarked for investment in quality and productivity, though many farmers vote to spend even more in this area.

In a nutshell, Fair Trade incentivizes responsible farming practices and empowers farmers to build vibrant businesses by working together. And though it's not a panacea, it does create tangible change and can "significantly reduce the prevalence and depth of poverty."


2.) With more money, farmers can invest in their farms

Take the case of Jose Isidro Lara, a Fair Trade farmer in Honduras. With the help of better prices and Fair Trade Premiums, Jose built his own personal wet mill and a solar drying area to achieve greater consistency in his coffee. He's been working hard to improve quality over time, and now negotiates double, sometimes triple the market price for his exceptional beans.


3.) Developing quality is beneficial for all

Buyers need quality. And farmers need resources to develop and maintain quality. In fact, their long-term survival in the business depends on it. That's why cross-industry partnerships are so critical, and mutually beneficial. Fair Trade helps foster these relationships, and serves as a vehicle to deliver much-needed funds directly to farmers.

According to David Morris, CEO of Dillanos Coffee Roasters, "Fair Trade coffee is vital to the sustainability of the world coffee industry. That's why we're committed to building quality relationships, sharing knowledge, and growing together to create success for everyone involved. It's also why we partner with sustainability-focused importers and cooperatives like Sustainable Harvest of Portland, and the ADISA Cooperative of Peru. Through this work, Dillanos has seen a steady rise in quality at every step."

The proof is in the pudding

When farmers partner closely with buyers, and can earn enough to invest in their farms, great things happen. And not just in coffee, but in other categories like cocoa, tea and produce. Across the board Fair Trade leaders continue to win awards. Here are a few:

  • Dillanos Coffee Roasters was awarded Roast Magazine's Macro Roaster of the Year 2011, and roasted the United States Barista Champion Laila Ghambari's 2014 championship coffee

  • CECOVASA, a Fair Trade coffee co-op in Peru, won the National Quality Coffee Competition six times in the last nine years. They also won the People's Choice Award at SCAA's Coffees of the Year competition in 2010.

  • Six out of the top 10 coffees in the Peruvian cupping competition were from Fair Trade co-ops.

"As a long-time roaster of Fair Trade Certified coffee, we have benefited from our long-standing relationships with farmer cooperatives," said David Yake of Tony's Coffee. "These organizations provide cutting-edge educational resources to their members, which benefits everyone in the supply chain, including our customers - many of whom anticipate the release of their favorite coffee year after year. This excitement is the ultimate payoff for the hard-work that goes into every step in a coffee's journey."


Securing the future of quality coffee

Fair Trade has come a long way in the last 50+ years, and with it, a growing number of farmers, traders, roasters, retailers and consumers who understand that supporting farmer livelihoods is critical to the future of quality coffee.

"If you want quality, delivery on time, and a sustainable product, it has to be Fair Trade. Relationships with farmers and buyers must be strengthened. We're not a production machine but a living participant." -- Miguel Paz, adviser to CECOVASA cooperative, Peru