About twelve years ago, I drank my first cup of fair trade coffee. I didn’t spend much time thinking about the implications—it just seemed like a decent idea to pay farmers a good price for their product.  But even the simple assumption that a fair trade or organic label guarantees farmers a better income or life can be questioned. Do farmers actually receive extra profit? Are they more successful than conventional producers? Do the labels mean anything to them? In Brewing Justice, Washington State University sociologist Daniel Jaffee explores those questions, and other complications of fair trade and organic coffee production, through the experiences of Mexican coffee producers and a detailed look at the global coffee market.

Comparing the income and quality of life between Michiza members (a fair trade and organic grower cooperative) and conventional farmers in southern Mexico’s Rincón region, Jaffee shows that the fair trade farmers usually do earn slightly more than their counterparts despite higher labor and inspection costs. Michiza members also benefit the community through local spending, wages for extra work, environmental protection, and less reliance on coyote middlemen to sell coffee.

So why don’t all coffee farmers grow fair trade or organic coffee? In the roller-coaster realm of coffee costs, conventional coffee prices sometimes reach or exceed the base fair trade price of $1.26 per pound. With fair trade’s much higher standards for coffee quality and wages for workers, conventional producers don’t necessarily see the benefit of switching.

Brewing Justice also takes an overview of fair trade certifiers and their relationship with coffee giants like Starbucks and Folgers. As fair trade goes mainstream and rules are bent for major companies, Jaffee argues that policies need to be applied equally and presents recommendations to retain the integrity of fair trade labels.

As I sip my coffee and read the latest headline of economic disaster, Jaffee’s book seems very relevant as an alternative model for the give and take of consumers and producers. Jaffee notes that fair trade puts a face with a commodity for coffee drinkers. And as coffee prices have plummeted, fair trade remains a stable force for farmers on the edge of poverty.

Jaffee won a prestigious C. Wright Mills award—for social science scholarship that gives a fresh perspective on a contemporary problem, contains theoretical and empirical evidence, and lists specific actions—for Brewing Justice. Indeed, the book provokes questions about the fair trade movement through clear writing and real world examples, making it both accessible and well-researched.

Daniel Jaffee
University of California Press
Berkeley, CA