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The History of Fair Trade Coffee

Oct 24, 2022 | Blog, Fair Trade Organic

Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in the world, and for good reason. Americans, alone, drink almost 400 million cups per day. Delicious and energizing, it is enjoyed in virtually endless ways.

But did you know? That morning jolt may very well be energizing farmers and workers in developing countries, as well.

Almost half of the world’s coffee continues to be produced by small farmers. Fair Trade products and organic Fair Trade coffees are critical to their livelihoods.

Fair Trade Month is observed every October, celebrating Fair Trade-certified businesses while raising awareness for an equitable international trading system that gives entrepreneurs in developing countries opportunities to succeed.

Fair Trade-certified products must meet certain standards concerning labor rights, environmental sustainability, and transparency. For coffee farmers, this often means better prices, improved working conditions, and investment in community development projects.

A Movement Begins

The history of Fair Trade coffee is almost as complex as the movement, itself.

It all began back in the 1940s when businesswoman and Mennonite volunteer Edna Ruth Byler began bringing handicrafts from Puerto Rico to the U.S. and returning the profits to the women who made them. By 1958, this initial gesture had transformed into a nonprofit that would eventually be known as Ten Thousand Villages, one of the largest Fair Trade organizations worldwide.

Fair Trade Brews Something New

It wasn’t until 1973, however, that Fair Trade coffee was introduced by Fair Trade Original in the Netherlands, who imported the product from small farming coops in Guatemala.

But it was the dramatic fall of coffee prices in the 1980s, spurred by an unstable market in which supply exceeded demand, that ultimately served as a Fair Trade landmark. In response, a priest who had been working with Mexican farms to export coffee to the Netherlands devised the concept of a Fair Trade label – a groundbreaking first for the movement. Coffee makers that adhered to Fair Trade conditions would be eligible to use this label, helping their product stand out from the rest.

In 1988, the Max Havelaar label was introduced, named after the titular hero of an 1860 novel who opposed the exploitation of Dutch coffee workers. Max Havelaar helped to introduce Fair Trade products to a mainstream audience, allowing profits to soar and providing confirmation that the sale of such goods was aiding producers, craftspeople, and farmers.

Fair Trade Coffee Takes on New Life

Thanks to the impact of Fair Trade coffee, the movement itself expanded worldwide, launching organizations like Fair Trade USA and the Fairtrade Foundation in the UK, each spearheading their own campaigns, labels, and certifications.

In 1997, multiple member organizations united to form Fairtrade International (formerly Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International, or FLO).

Today, there are approximately 656 Fairtrade-certified coffee-producing organizations across four continents, all of whom are dedicated to helping coffee farmers gain a stronger foothold in the global market, improving not only their lives but also the communities they serve.

Coffee remains the pillar of the Fair Trade movement, with Fair Trade USA now impacting more than 45 countries. Over the last two decades, it has paid small farmers more than $1 billion.

Orinoco Coffee and Tea invests in coffees that have been certified by Fair Trade USA. More than 40 percent of our stock is organic, and those beans are thoroughly vetted to meet or exceed the highest natural agro standards.

To learn more about Fair Trade, visit www.fairtradecertified.org. And shop Orinoco’s Fair Trade organic coffee.