Many means are available for study of fair trade coffee

Jaan Pill photo

Among the academic lenses available for study of fair trade coffee is ethnographic research.

Ethnography is similar to the work of a reporter or documentary maker but within a prescribed academic framework.

The level of detail, however, and the amount of immersion into everyday life, appears greater than what a reporter would deal with. Ethnographic research can make for informative reading.

Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs combined elements of ethnography and reporting in her work. She also worked to some extent within but largely outside of an academic framework.


I’m keen about following where the data leads me.

I’ve gone with the evidence and have pretty much stopped drinking red wine and eating dark chocolate. I’ve reduced my sugar consumption in line with the World Heath Organization’s proposed guidelines. With regard to coffee, I like  The Latte Factor.

Coffee business owners

From observing local coffee shops in south Etobicoke, I’m aware that much work goes into the running of a coffee business. That fact also comes across in the ethnographic study of fair trade coffee.

Buying into Fair Trade (2013)

A recent ethnographic study is entitled: Buying into Fair Trade: Culture, Morality and Consumption (2013). A blurb – which, while of much interest, has the voice, at least to my ears, of a text written by a committee – for the book notes:

  • Stamped on products from coffee to handicrafts, the term “fair trade” has quickly become one of today’s most seductive consumer buzzwords. Purportedly created through fair labor practices, or in ways that are environmentally sustainable, fair-trade products give buyers peace of mind in knowing that, in theory, how they shop can help make the world a better place. Buying into Fair Trade turns the spotlight onto this growing trend, exploring how fair-trade shoppers think about their own altruism within an increasingly global economy.

[End of excerpt]

The book is an enjoyable read especially if you read it along with other studies.


The following passage employs a usage in which “fair trade” is hyphenated when linked with other words. I tend to avoid such hyphenations. Some word pairs work better without hyphenations. Word pairs such as “fair trade” demonstrate a kind of robustness, possibly because of the frequency of their appearance in print, that to my mind communicates a clear message, namely: “We can work fine without the hyphenation.”

A passage from Buying into Fair Trade (2013, p. 85) reads:

  • Fair trade is not, however, a reliable measure of how the coffee will taste. When fair-trade standards were first established, many of the coffee beans were not comparable to other specialty beans. Early entrepreneurs were more concerned with the fair-trade philosophy than with the quality of the coffee. Today, fair-trade coffee importers realize that they must compete with other specialty coffees. More important, coffee quality is based on factors such as altitude, rainfall amounts, type of coffee bean (arabica/robusta), and whether the coffee cherry was picked when ripe. There is no correlation between these factors and whether the beans receive fair-trade certification. Moreover, the supply of fair-trade certified coffee is currently outpacing demand. As a result, a lot of high-quality specialty coffees are produced with fair-trade standards but sold without the Fair Trade USA logo. Whether or not coffee is certified as fair trade has no impact on how it actually tastes.

[End of excerpt]

The book’s index lists the following items for “Coffee.” Among the items is a reference to Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World (2010)

– Coffee: artisanal market for

– boom-bust cycles of

– “Buy more coffee”

– cart

– cherries

– child labor and

– coyotes

– crisis

– fair trade (See Independents coffee shops; Starbucks; specific coffee shops; specific organizations)

– first wave of

– growth of

– second wave of

– ICA and

– Italy and

– research methods and

– roasting

– specialty market for

– third wave of

– solidarity

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World [2010]

– See also Starbucks

[End of index list for Coffee]


Is there a reason to boycott fair trade coffee after reading recent research reports? For me, answer is: No

A Huffington Post article, downloaded July 19, 2015, is entitled: The Myth of the Ethical Shopper. We’re still trying to eliminate sweatshops and child labor by buying right. But that’s not how the world works in 2015.

Also of interest: The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (2004).

A Jan. 29, 2016 CBC article is entitled: “Coffee cups: 3 months later, are they being recycled at Tim Hortons and Starbucks?”


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