Last Saturday morning, I was “that” girl. The one you hate because she was taking up an entire group study room for just herself in the Link during midterms week. I was pretty pleased with myself, sitting there with my quantum book. Yet as one hour passed, then two, then three, I developed a blinding headache. What could be to blame? My money was on the physics.
At that point I left the Link (novel idea!), climbed the stairs and walked into a now open von der Heyden. I’m not a milk person, so I went with the classic: a small black coffee. And lo and behold, that cup of coffee was my miracle drug! If I hadn’t already committed to catching up on “How I Met Your Mother,” I might even have been able to return to homework.
Before this harrowing experience, I did not consider coffee addiction to be legitimate. How many times have you heard, “Now I would just DIE without my morning coffee”? And how many times have you actually heard campus EMTs touting high numbers of caffeine-withdrawal transports? Still, on average Americans drink 3.1 cups of coffee per day, and without those 3.1 mug refills at Joe Van Gogh’s/ABP/von der Heyden there’s quite the painful biological response that kicks in.
The volume of coffee in our economy as a result of these addictions is jolting. Forty billion dollars are spent on coffee in the United States every year. Not only is that number impressive, but also the implications of our demand in coffee-producing nations are huge. Colombia derives about 3.5 percent of its GDP from the exportation of coffee, and that’s based almost exclusively on the coffee cultures of the United States and Europe. Imagine if coffee became a part of the culture in Russia or China, two other nations with huge populations and huge purchasing powers. Coffee could be the next black gold.
This sort of commodity dependence in the Western world is not necessarily a positive thing. In fact, more often than not, addiction implies constant, and high, demand, providing an exploitable source of profit for violent groups in nations vulnerable to corruption. Lucrative and addictive products like opium and coca end up funding whatever corporate, militant or governmental organizations that have the power to control them.
So it fits that in the ’90s, fluctuating coffee prices brought violence to Colombia. But here it was lower prices causing the unrest. Violence wasn’t a result of crime-based organizations accruing more money and power, but rather a response to rising poverty levels and the resulting spike in crime rates. This converse relationship between coffee profits and violence is a product of two factors: the vast number of workers and the legality of the export.
The fact that coffee is legal makes a world of difference in the impact of the export on the producing nation. The argument that legalizing drugs in the United States lends itself toward more capable regulation is the same from the production end; a legal product has far more potential for control and oversight than an illegal one. In order to derive serious power from coffee production, an organization would have to take over government infrastructure of export and transport already being utilized in legitimate trade.
So then the solution to the poverty-based violence from decades ago is for coffee prices to soar and for coffee to remain in high demand. For Colombians, that would mean less poverty and less violence, and for importers like the United States, the assuagement of our far-too-prolific socially conscious ethos and a safer backyard. These are the goals that “fair trade” coffee seeks to achieve. By setting an above-market price floor for coffee that is certified fair trade (high wages and good working conditions), money from coffee trade goes directly to the worker, directly to the root of the poverty problem. Fair Trade USA is surprisingly self-sufficient as well. By applying service fees upon buyers of fair trade coffee, they earn 70 percent of their budget.
Now, of course it is naïve to assume that certifying coffee as “fair trade” ensures that all coffee-pickers receive fair treatment. And I haven’t even broached the intricacies and complications that result from applying a subsidy, particularly on imported products. But coffee imports are not one-dimensional; they aren’t a one-for-one trade, cash for coffee, so it’s extremely valuable that organizations within the United States are applying focus on intelligent and ethical consumerism.
I will usually be the first to adopt a cynical attitude toward purely emotional pleas for advancing world peace, but advocacy like this makes up for the annoyance by prompting dialogue, by making it such that there are countless research projects and editorials written adopting pro-fair trade attitudes or adopting anti-fair trade attitudes. The problem is relevant and discussed, and only then can we adequately and intelligently look at solutions. Hopefully this column will prompt you to think about fair trade, or coffee, or worker’s rights. And if you ever want to chat, I’ll probably be in Vondy, mug in hand, single-handedly tripling the GDP of Latin American coffee exporters.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Wednesday. You can follow Lydia on Twitter @ThurmanLydia.