April 16, 2001

Fair Trade Coffee Promoted

Print More

The aroma of freshly-brewed gourmet coffee drew many students to Ho Plaza on Friday afternoon.

In conjunction with the Cornell Greens, members of Equal Exchange, a Boston-based cooperative company, gave out free samples of coffee and information about the principles of fair trade on which their company is based. Equal Exchange representatives also met with the head of Cornell dining to discuss the possibility that the University will offer fair trade coffee.

Rather than buying coffee from huge plantations that exploit local farmers and whose farming techniques destroy the local environment, Equal Exchange buys coffee from democratically-organized cooperatives of small farmers who engage in much more environmentally friendly farming practices.

According to Equal Exchange’s estimates, Ithacans drink over six million cups of coffee each year — about 32 cups per person, making Ithaca the largest consumer per capita of fair trade coffee in the country.

“In Ithaca, there is greater awareness of fair trade issues than in many places,” said Rink Dickinson, one of the founders and president of Equal Exchange. “We’re trying to make sure that awareness extends to Cornell.”

Representatives of Equal Exchange met with Nadeem Siddiqui, head of Dining Services at Cornell, to encourage the University to sell fair trade coffee in the dining halls.

“We have a current contract with another vender, but we are looking to build a partnership with Equal Exchange,” Siddiqui said.

“It is important that [Equal Exchange and Cornell Dining] work together to encourage products from companies who are conscious of doing the right things the right way,” he added.

At some locations, Cornell dining offers coffee from Starbucks, which sells a small percentage of fair trade coffee.

“Less than one percent of Starbucks’ coffee is fair trade,” noted Kevin Hollender, north east coordinator of Equal Exchange. “But at least they’re moving that way. If awareness keeps rising and consumers demand fair trade coffee, the companies will comply,” he said.

Hollender acknowledged that it is difficult to sell a more expensive product, but expressed confidence that fair trade coffee will sell once people are aware the higher price means a better quality of life for small farmers.

“I went to Mexico and saw how the farmers live,” said Patrice Jennings, general manager of Green Star Cooperative in downtown Ithaca. “These people literally earn pennies for an entire day’s labor. Fair trade makes all the difference in the world to the individual farmer.”

Equal Exchange representatives spent Saturday afternoon offering information and coffee at Green Star, a long-time supporter of fair trade coffee.

The Cornell Greens focused on another benefit of fair trade coffee: the importance of supporting small farmers since their farming methods are much more environmentally sound.

“The farming practices of big coffee companies destroy the environment,” said Joseph McGill ’02, treasurer of the Cornell Greens and organizer of the event. “The methods of small farmers are so much safer.”

“Instead of clear-cutting huge pieces of land, the coffee is shade-grown, which means that most of the existing forest is intact,” Hollender explained. “There is less soil erosion and the habitats of birds are intact.”

Hollender noted that all of the coffee is organic, “so no pesticides or herbicides are used.”

At this point, according to representatives of Equal Exchange, the greatest obstacle to its mission is a lack of public awareness of fair trade issues.

“I don’t think people realize that if you buy coffee that is not fair trade, you are buying someone else’s blood, sweat and tears,” said Heather Bretz, deli counter department head at Green Star.

“That’s why we travel around to places like Ithaca — to try to increase

awareness,” Dickinson said. “We’ve grown so much because of increased


In fact, Equal Exchange has grown dramatically since its inception in 1986, now selling about $7.2 million in fair trade coffee, up from about $113,000 in sales during its first year.

Although many local businesses, including Collegetown Bagels, Ithaca Bakery, Tops and Green Star sell fair trade coffee, most Cornell students who heard about fair trade coffee on Friday had been previously unaware of the methods of coffee production.

“It’s kind of disturbing,” Nicole Freeman ’02 said. “Next time I drink a cup of coffee, I’m going to be thinking about poor farmers somewhere in Mexico.”

“We just want people to be aware of the impact of their decisions-even when buying a cup of coffee between classes,” McGill said.

Archived article by Elisa Jillson