Cheap Fair Trade Coffee – An Oxymoron?

coffee-beans-21.jpgSwitching from conventional coffee to fair trade is one of the simplest changes you can make in living a more just life. As more people switch coffees, many more farmers enjoy a livable income for their hard work. However the switch to fair trade coffee can be expensive. Most fair trade coffee is priced at least at $8-$10 per pound, comparable to other high-quality coffees but much more expensive if you’re used to purchasing Folger’s.

Many people assume the coffee is more expensive because the farmers are paid more per pound for their coffee. True, farmers who join fair trade coffee cooperatives receive at least $1.40/ pound for their coffee, compared to prices as low as 30-40 cents/ pound paid by the world’s largest coffee companies. However another big reason for the markup is the quality. The fair trade label does not guarantee better coffee, but most of it is good. Most small farmers grow their coffee under the canopy of larger trees such as fruit trees, which makes for richer soil, little or no artificial pesticides or fertilizers, and better tasting coffee. It also takes longer to grow and yields fewer beans than the slash-and-burn methods employed by cheap coffee conglomerates. So in switching to fair trade coffee you do pay a higher price, but in most cases you get a much better tasting cup of coffee as well as the peace of mind that your purchase benefits, rather than harms, the farmers who grew it.

Recently I researched fair trade coffee prices for my church, which I am proud to say has fully made the switch to all fair trade coffee. In the process I discovered several options that, while still more than conventional coffees, are more affordable than some fair trade grinds. The cheapest fair trade coffee I found is at Costco. Yes, the giant of super-packaging has discovered that the Fair Trade label sells and, like everything at Costco, when you buy in large quantities you save even on fair trade coffee. A 2-pound bag of regular coffee sells for $9.99 or $4.99/ pound. Their 2-pound bag of decaf sells for $10.99 or $5.50/ pound. The flavor is pretty decent, although a little on the weak side for me.

Another option that costs a little more is fair trade coffees at Trader Joe’s. My Trader Joe’s in Lake Oswego carries several fair trade options all between $5.99-7.99 for 12 ounces. I especially like the Nicaraguan and Ethiopian fair trade blends. They are rich, dark and smooth.

My church has settled on buying our fair trade coffee from Equal Exchange (EE). EE has a special Interfaith program for churches and, while slightly more than the Costco coffee, they ship it straight to the church so the kitchen is always stocked. Through EE’s Interfaith program we are able to buy 5 pounds of what they call “Fellowship Blend” coffee for $26.50 or $5.30/ pound. We are just starting with EE so I haven’t tried the coffee yet, but when I have had their coffee in the past it has always been delicious.

There is no reason to fret about buying cheaper fair trade coffee, at least not from a justice perspective. Regardless of what you pay, if a coffee carries a Fair Trade certification the farmers received a fair price. You may want to try a few to determine how you like the taste but, so long as it is certified fair trade, go right ahead and save a few cents.

For more information on fair trade coffee I recommend these sites:

Equal Exchange


Wikipedia – Great entry on fair trade




  1. PDXcuppajoe said,

    March 14, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    Well said. What’s $5 for a pound of coffee when you pay about that for just one latte at Starbucks. What about fair trade options at places like Starbucks? Can you get a fair trade cup at the chains?

  2. Becky Larson said,

    March 14, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    Thanks for this insightful post. I learned a lot about coffee–it’s especially good to know that when you pay more for fair trade coffee you’re not only helping farmers get a fair wage, but you’re also getting better quality coffee as well.

    I’m going to forward the info about equal exchange to my church. I think they’ll be very interested!

    Can’t wait for the next post!

  3. Rodney North said,

    March 17, 2008 at 7:08 am

    I’m from the worker co-op Equal Exchange, and we appreciate the mention.

    By the way, we’re also glad to provide folks with Fair Trade tea, cocoa, chocolate and US-sourced Fair Trade snacks like organic cranberries and almonds. see

    As for Fair Trade, cafes and the big chains. First try your local independent cafes – see for the non-chain cafe near you.
    Also, all the espresso drinks at Dunkin Donuts are made with Fair Trade coffee (although its NON-organic).
    And you can, sort of, get a cup of Fair Trade coffee at Starbucks, but you’ll have to pay extra and wait at least 5 minutes. So, again, is a better bet.

  4. KarenP said,

    March 17, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    Thanks for the resource! I was in the coffee aisle yesterday for about 15 minutes, trying to find my husband espresso beans that are organic, fairly traded, and shade grown. I found something that looked reasonably close to what I was looking for, but Equal Exchange seems like a much better option.

  5. Beth said,

    March 17, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    Hi Karen, Just note that even if doesn’t say it’s organic or shade grown, most fair trade coffee uses very little or no chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Environmentally sustainable practices are a criteria for fair trade, so most fair trade coffee is also shade grown. It’s simply too expensive for many small farmers to get organic certification but they are using practices that promote preserving their land for many generations.

    Thanks for commenting and for taking the time to look for fair trade coffee! Let me know what Mike thinks of what you bought.


  6. Mike Prigodich said,

    April 15, 2008 at 11:23 pm

    I stopped at Peet’s Coffee today in Tannesbourne (Beaverton, OR) and asked about their Fair Trade coffee. They launched into a spiel about how their non-Fair Trade coffee was actually a better deal for the coffee farmers since they buy all their coffee directly from the farmers, many of which live too far from a co-op to participate in an official fair trade program, and Peet’s supposedly pays at least more than double the fair trade prices directly to the farmer, by-passing the middle-men and avoiding the percentage of the fair-trade cost that goes to running the co-op. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard someone say it was better to *not* buy the fair-trade coffee. I’m not sure what to believe about their spiel…

  7. Beth said,

    April 16, 2008 at 8:45 am

    Hi Mike,
    I’ve heard this same spiel from Peet’s. This may well be the case that Peet’s pays better than fair trade prices, and good for Peet’s if they do. My concern with companies that justify their practices on price alone is that fair trade means more than what price is paid. It also involves high environmental standards, fair wages to workers who pick the beans (not just the farm owners), some sort of democratic organization of the farmers and an ongoing relationship with the buyer. There definitely is plenty of room for ethical business relationships outside of the fair trade certification. But when a company becomes self-certifying, as Starbucks has, then you wonder where the accountability lies. With a company like Peet’s it would be in their best interest to get some sort of outside group to vouch for their ethical practices, such as a non-profit watchdog group like Oxfam, even if they don’t necessarily buy certified fair trade coffee.

    As far as living too far away from a co-op to participate I don’t buy that. There isn’t a coffee farmer out there who doesn’t have his/ her farm next door to another coffee farm, which is what it takes to have a co-op of some sort.

  8. May 31, 2008 at 10:06 am

    I like *instant* coffee, since it’s just too complicated for me to brew my own joe. I’ve been a long time happy customer of Taster’s Choice, but I get the feeling Nescafe is not too concerned about Fair Trade. I can’t seem to find any instant coffee that is labelled as such. Since you’ve raised my awareness, I just picked up this stuff from New Seasons, and they say they’re organic. Is that good enough in this case? Can you recommend some other instant brand that is farmer-friendly?

  9. Beth said,

    May 31, 2008 at 8:20 pm

    Micah, oh Micah. Instant coffee? And you are from Portland? I’m tempted to run out and buy you your own French Press. If you’re already boiling water for your instant coffee it wouldn’t take you any more time to pour your boiling water into real grounds in a french press than it would into your cup of tasteless instant powder. But if you insist on drinking instant (sigh of resignation) you are better drinking organic than anything from Taster’s Choice or Nescafe. Nescafe is made by Nestle, which is considered to be one of if not the most irresponsible companies in the world (for many reasons, not just their coffee buying practices). Organic does not equal fair trade (see this post on the topic
    but it does imply a company committed to sustainable practices and, if nothing else, the farmers who grow it are not exposed to harmful pesticides and their soil and water systems are protected. When you’re ready to make the switch to good coffee, let me know and I’ll set you up.

  10. June 1, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    As you can imagine, we have to keep things pretty simple in our child-dominated kitchen. But hypothetically speaking, if I was to buy a french press (which I’ve had problems with in the past with mouthfuls of grinds) would I also have to buy a special coarse-cut grinder? What press/grinder do you recommend for cheap? Don’t mean to hijack your blog. You can respond in email if you prefer. Thanks for your concern for my addiction. I really just need an affordable and simple fix, and want to be responsible :-)

  11. Emily Cooley said,

    July 9, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    I am working at a fair trade coffee start up company (EvoBean). It has certainly been a struggle to find a coffee roaster that fits our high standards of sustainability. We’ve been looking into companies that try to turn around the community they are buying from by setting up schools, and trying to promote jobs that pair fair wages. Do you know any roasters that do this?

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