Regular or decaf?

Jenny Dwoskin

All students on campus – coffee and non-coffee drinkers alike – have seen the Mountain Man. Though many mistake him for just another Juan Valdez, the man pictured on the Green Mountain Coffee poster is more than just a mascot for coffee: he is a mascot for both human and environmental rights. In 2001, Villanova dropped its previous conventional coffee distributors and became a United Students for Free Trade (USFT) school, selling fair trade coffee: Green Mountain in the dining halls and Peet’s Coffee & Tea in the Holy Grounds.

“Fair trade” is an importing method that is gradually revolutionizing the world market, especially the coffee industry. Historically, the conventional trade of coffee has been both socially and environmentally questionable. Approximately half of the coffee that is consumed is cultivated by families on small farms who lack transportation and economic resources. Consequently, the families are forced to sell their milled coffee beans to local middlemen for a mere fraction of what the product is actually worth. Exporters purchase the coffee from the middlemen and ship it to importers in Europe and North America where it is roasted, distributed and packaged for sale.

Originally implemented after World War II, fair trade didn’t gain popularity until 1988 when the Netherland’s Max Havelaar Company introduced the concept to Europe’s coffee industry. The company – named after a fictional character that protested against the exploitation of coffee growers in Dutch colonies – created the first standardized fair trade criteria and formed the Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO), a trade alliance that now includes 17 nations.

By eliminating middlemen and establishing cooperatives, small farmers are able to sell their coffee directly to fair trade importers in Europe and North America that will pay three to five times more than the middlemen.

The higher wages allow farmers to live more comfortably, send their children to school and use environmentally-beneficial cultivating methods: omitting the use of pesticides and herbicides, composting excess coffee pulp instead of dumping it into waterways, terracing hillsides in order to utilize the land’s utmost potential and shade-growing to save the wildlife that flourishes among forest canopies. Though less efficient and more costly, these methods help to preserve the rainforests and mountains in which the coffee beans are grown.

Eventually, companies in Europe applied similar fair-trade certified methods to the tea, chocolate, banana, citrus, sugar and honey markets. In 1999, TransFair USA joined the FLO, and as of now, Americans can purchase fair trade certified coffee, tea and chocolate at over 12,000 stores nationwide, including Genuardi’s, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Starbucks. Colleges in particular have contributed to the $180 million worth of TransFair sales in 2003, a 44 percent increase from 2002. Presently, the USFT organization boasts over 200 participating campuses, including Harvard, UCLA and Villanova.

“Dining Services Director Tim Dietzler made the decision to serve Fair Trade certified coffee at Holy Grounds back in 2001, after learning about the industry,” Christina Rittenhouse said. “He was approached by a student group that was working with the Center for Peace and Justice Education.”

Though Holy Grounds was the first dining hall to embrace fair trade, eventually the entire campus converted. “We wanted to be able to expand the Fair Trade program throughout campus in order to support the industry, as well as offer more variety to our customers. So, we brought in Green Mountain in 2002,” Dietzler said. Though TransFair sales have improved, major corporations like Procter & Gamble, Kraft Foods, Sara Lee and Nestlé still control the majority of the nation’s coffee.

Gradually, TransFair hopes to gain dominance of the industry through the recruitment of even more schools and businesses. This past fall, Dunkin Donuts teamed up with TransFair by introducing a new line of espresso drinks made from fair trade coffee. The sales are estimated to make up to five percent of Dunkin Donuts coffee sales – approximately 50 million cups. And just recently, bananas, pineapples and other tropical fruits have been added to the list of TransFair certified goods that can now be purchased at select stores in six states. Ideally, TransFair and its fellow FLO companies would like fair trade to be the only method of trade. In the meantime, one can help by purchasing TransFair certified beverages and food products.