As you may have heard, it’s Lent! For this season I’ve teamed up with International Justice Mission to highlight modern slavery in supply chains, and this year they’ve asked people to give up coffee, chocolate or make up for the 40 days of Lent (if you’re interested, I’m giving up coffee, which is easy for me, and chocolate, which is NOT). During this period I’ll be talking about these three areas, where the problems lie, and how we can shop better. The reality is that 40 million people are in slavery worldwide, making items like these that we buy every day. IJM works to implement concrete solutions at the source, and I’m here to talk about things that we can do at a consumer level. I strongly believe in the power of combining individual consumption, collective action and policy change, which is why I love this Lent campaign as it brings together all three.

So, let’s talk about coffee.

I think there’s two main areas we want to think about when we’re talking ethical coffee:

The company

‘There’s an enormous difference between the coffee industry as a whole and the specialty coffee sector. The coffee industry as a whole is overwhelmingly dominated by large, multinational companies which supply cheap, generic products in supermarkets. Specialty coffee roasters make up an incredibly small percentage of the industry and are intimately involved in the entire coffee cycle — from farming, to processing and roasting.’ (source)

This generally means that the least ethical coffee will be from large corporations (both in terms of coffee in stores and coffee shop chains), and is normally instant. This is because the organisation’s main priorities are efficiency and profit: keeping production costs low whilst making coffee as quickly and cheaply as possible, with no real regard for human and environmental welfare, or the quality of the product. It’s exactly the same as fast fashion, which often results in unfair wages, poor treatment and issues of slavery:

‘The farmers growing this coffee will try to obtain cheap labour — often exploiting children and other workers on their plantations. These farmers clear all native trees in order to grow as many coffee trees as possible, and use the cheapest synthetic pesticides and herbicides. This is a good reason to avoid cheap, supermarket coffee — not only does it taste bad, but the farmers get a really bad deal.’ (source)

So, unsurprisingly, big chain coffee is bad for everyone; customer, supplier and farmer alike. The only ones who benefit are the (already incredibly wealthy) corporations and CEOs.

The great thing is that moving away from this type of coffee is a bit of a ‘two birds one stone’ situation. Not only will you be avoiding coffee produced through exploitation and getting better quality coffee, but using beans instead of instant also creates a lot less waste, uses up less plastic (especially from those dang instant pods) and often converts investment into organic farming where native trees are also left alone, so the environment gets some handy benefits too.

Certifications (or lack thereof)

When we think of drinking coffee that’s ethical, many of us will be the most familiar with the Fairtrade label, which pays producers a “fair trade” above market price provided they meet specified labor, environmental, and production requirements. Since its conception in the 1980s Fairtrade has become a prominent name in the world of ethical food and drink. The problem is that it may not be as ethical as we would hope.

Basically, the Fairtrade system isn’t designed very well, and past studies from Harvard and the University of Wisconsin suggest that Fairtrade coffee has had barely any affects on coffee growers, especially the poorest ones, or on overall poverty reduction. This is how Fairtrade is set up to work:

  • Growers belong to a selected group of overseas producer co-ops
  • They are paid a minimum of $1.40 per pound (of Arabica beans) that are able to be sold, this is known as a ‘price floor’ and means that the price charged cannot be lower than this
  • If the market price rises above the price floor, growers receive the market price as well as a premium that is sent back for investment in the co-op and local community
  • In order to receive this price, growers have to pay to become certified, join a co-op, agree to standard practices on use of fertilisers/pesticides, and pay coffee labourers fairly

Unfortunately, this system fails for many reasons which you can read about here and here The most pressing, however, is that Fairtrade certification doesn’t remove slavery from the supply chain. This is mainly due to poor monitoring which is, I would argue, one of the most vital parts of operating a successful certification system.

‘The most stark example is the recent controversy over Fairtrade and the payment of a living wage to coffee workers on smallholder farms in Ethiopia and Uganda. Research from SOAS  found that the Fairtrade Foundation is unable to ensure that all workers get paid a living wage. Most coffee is produced by smallholders who employ some workers – the latter tend to be the worst paid. This is partly because their employers are poor themselves, and also because it is hard to police what happens on thousands of tiny farms… Fairtrade Foundation standards do not regulate wages if a smallholder employs less than a “significant number” of workers, which is generally interpreted to mean 20. If they employ fewer than 20, they aren’t even required to pay the legal minimum wage.’ (source)

The reason this isn’t more well known? Fairtrade has some really strong marketing out there, even I didn’t know much about this before I started looking into it, although I’m not a huge coffee drinker so it wasn’t a massive part of my day to day life.

Asides from this, Fairtrade can also do a lot of damage to poor farmers, who have to pay a considerable amount of money to join up and organise their businesses in ways that might not work for producers in the poorest countries. (source)

This is not to say that all Fairtrade coffee is inherently exploitative, after all it has been a huge catalyst for change and awareness, especially in its beginnings. There is good Fairtrade coffee out there, we simply need to dig a little deeper under the surface sometimes. Being certified Fairtrade doesn’t make coffee perfect, and not being certified Fairtrade doesn’t make it exploitation. There are good options out there, we just need to think critically. 

To avoid confusion, here are some of the other accreditations you may see floating around the coffee world (taken from The Guardian’s 2015 article):


This accreditation scheme covers both environmental issues and workers’ rights. Its code of conduct is based on International Labour Organisation conventions and they work with the standards of the global sustainability standard association, the ISEAL Alliance. There is no floor price as per Fairtrade certified commodities. In the UK, Douwe Egberts, Burger King and IKEA are among those using this accreditation for coffee.

Rainforest Alliance

Also members of ISEAL, for growers to be certified they must adhere to a list of sustainable principles, including conserving local wildlife and water resources, minimising soil erosion and treating workers fairly. However, the Rainforest Alliance also does not guarantee a minimum price for suppliers. Around 75 brands use this label in the UK, including Costa, Lavazza and Kenco.

Proudly Made in Africa

The “value added” model addresses some models that don’t focus sufficiently on producer countries taking responsibility for processing. Finished products command much higher prices than raw agricultural produce, and being able to get that added value may be one of the most critical factors in enabling producers to escape from poverty.

Proudly Made in Africa is a new label focused on this issue, and certifies products as produced entirely in the countries where the original crops were grown. It is not yet widely available in the UK, but has certified coffee brands like Solino and Out of Africa.

Over 80% of Fairtrade coffee is organic. This is because coffee is usually produced on smallholder farms and farmers are often unable to afford expensive pesticides. However, organic certification alone doesn’t guarantee the rights of workers or set a minimum price. Aside from fairly traded products, several well known brands offer organic options, including Douwe Egberts and Whittards.

Direct Trade

This is different from a traditional accreditation scheme and more of a concept. Union Roasted, which uses this approach, describes its model as “dynamic engagement … compared to a static a tick-box approach employed by the certification schemes.”

They pay a premium 25% greater than the Fairtrade minimum price, plus an equivalent Fairtrade social premium and additional quality premiums for the coffee as they tend to sell better quality coffee that requires increased inputs.

‘‘Direct trade’ has become a buzz word in the coffee industry, so make sure that anything claiming to be ‘direct trade’ actually is. Do the roasters visit farmers and provide education, equipment and other support? An increasing number of cafes and roasters provide information on the farms where their coffees are grown. Look at the farming practices, the provisions for workers, whether the cherries are picked by hand, and whether native trees remain to provide shade.’ (source)

What if there’s no certification?

This isn’t always necessarily game over.

‘Again, the key is in the quality. Farmers growing high quality coffee will almost always be operating ethically. Look at the company roasting the coffee. What are their ethics, are they supporting the push towards higher quality products, assisting and educating farmers? Specialty coffee roasters are all about paying a generous price for high quality coffee, grown in the best conditions, by people who are treated fairly.’ (source)

So what the heck do we do with all this information?

Again, we need to break it down into two parts: the price the coffee farm is being paid, and ensuring that the farmers are paying and treating their lowest level workers fairly.

In general I believe that direct trade is the best model of all the ones discussed above. They pay a higher amount than Fairtrade, which tends to guarantee better quality product as well as better farming practices and fair payment. At the same time the direct, relational nature of the model holds much more room for transparency and understanding of the supply chain, because growers and buyers interact in a much more collaborative way. From here, this opens up coffee roasteries or cafes selling the beans to be more open to conversation, and hold more power when it comes to helping small farmers transform their businesses to eradicate exploitative practice.

Here are some key action points going forward:

  • If you’re going for coffee, try to go to local small businesses instead of large chains. Not only will you be supporting local business, but these cafe owners tend to have very direct relationships with both roasteries and farms. (I can vouch for this, I used to work for an independent coffee chain with around 8 stores, they would visit all the farms their tea and coffee came from multiple times throughout the year)
  • Try and buy coffee beans from sources that are accredited or known for their ethical policies, understanding that Fairtrade isn’t the be all and end all definer of what is ethical. While none have a perfect score, Ethical Consumer has a table of the most ethical coffees here.
  • In general try to buy from smaller coffee roasteries. They are more likely to be more involved with their supply chains and the farms their beans come from, and they’ll usually be able to answer questions about the farms they work with.
  • If you want to know more, contact companies and ask about their supply chains. If your favourite coffee companies don’t appear on the Ethical Consumer list, contact them and ask about their supply chains.
  • Contact your local/favourite coffee shops and ask them about the supply chains of the coffee they stock. Or suggest using beans from Ethical Consumer’s list, if they don’t already.

If you haven’t already, you can sign up to IJM’s Lent campaign here.

Updated Information

Since first publishing this piece, some readers got in touch with extra information to add to this post, which is great! Thank you to everyone who contacted me, here are some other things to consider:

  • When it comes to Brazil, nearly 25% of the Brazilian population live below the poverty line, despite coffee being a huge export. This is because coffee is rarely roasted where it is grown, meaning all of the income from coffee roasting and associated jobs disappear overseas. Paying farmers to roast their own coffee at just £1 per kilo could have left £2.59 billion in Brazil in a single year, as well as £1.65 billion in Vietnam, £810 million in Colombia, and £660 million in Indonesia. The organisation Not 1 Bean pays farmers to roast coffee within their own countries – you can buy their coffee here.
  • Other ethical coffee brands that have been specifically recommended to me since posting are Equal ExchangeKaffe BuenoWild Support, Doi Chang Coffee Co, Karuna Coffee, Efico and Wakuli Market.