September 29 is National Coffee Day in the United States, and many companies are celebrating by offering discounts and deals on coffee, or even free coffee. This year, Fairtrade America and Conservation International call on coffee drinkers to take a different path and support the farmers and workers producing their morning cup by choosing more sustainable options.
This is especially important now—the international market price for coffee has dropped below US$1 per pound, significantly lower than the cost of production, preventing farmers and workers from turning a profit. For these millions of small-scale coffee farmers struggling to feed their families and make ends meet, it is an increasingly dire situation.
Being a smallholder farmer is challenging. Their livelihoods come down to a single payday each year, and their actual salary is unknown and could vary by 100 percent. This is the reality faced by millions of coffee farmers around the world. This price volatility exacerbates the numerous challenges that coffee farmers and their families are already managing for, including:
- Climate change and unpredictable weather patterns that are disrupting farming cycles and reducing the suitability of their land for growing coffee
- The threat of pests and plant diseases, like coffee leaf rust, a fungus that can destroy a farmers’ entire crop
- Increasing costs of production and limited access to finance
- Whether their children will take over their farm or move to the city
- Food insecurity
In fact, a phenomenon called the los Meses Flacos, or the Thin Months, affects the majority of smallholder coffee farmers and their families each year. The Thin Months is a period of seasonal hunger that begins before the coffee harvest as families run short on funds from the previous year’s paycheck. This results in food insecurity and malnutrition that takes a toll on the entire family.
All of these issues affect and are affected by the income farmers earn from their coffee. Price is a function of how much coffee the farmer can produce on a parcel of land, the quality of the coffee, sustainability premiums, and the international commodity price. But even farmers who are certified by Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, or other programs are affected due to lack of market uptake. According to Fairtrade International’s latest monitoring and impact report, the average Fairtrade-certified coffee producer sells just over a third of their production as Fairtrade, even though 100 percent of the coffee they produce could be sold as certified.
Shopping for coffee? Think sustainable
This is where consumers’ daily cup of coffee comes in. Choosing more sustainable options can support farmers and help drive demand for sustainable coffee. This year, rather than knocking down doors for discounts, Fairtrade America and Conservation International suggests celebrating coffee in a way that honors the people and the work that goes into it.
Buying more sustainable coffee is just one way to improve prospects for farmers and workers in coffee. Here are six suggestions on celebrating National Coffee Day in a way that supports farmers during this difficult market time:
- Look for Fairtrade and other third-party certified or verified coffee options. Farmers are working hard to improve their techniques and produce coffee more sustainably. Coffees certified by Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance, UTZ and Smithsonian Bird Friendly, or verified to Starbucks C.A.F.E. Practices are good options.
- Ask your favorite coffee shop to offer more sustainable coffee options. Farmers are working hard to produce coffee more sustainably, but only sell a percentage of their coffee as certified. Let your favorite roaster know your preference.
- Check out Transparent Trade Coffee. Participating companies have committed to price transparency within their supply chains.
- Visit the Sustainable Coffee Challenge. Participating companies have committed to sustainable coffee sourcing.
- Support non-governmental organizations doing work at origin. Trade alone is insufficient for helping farmers and their families overcome their challenges. Support organizations working with coffee-farming families, such as Food 4 Farmers, Pueblo a Pueblo, The Coffee Trust, Mercy Corps, Lutheran World Relief, Catholic Relief Services, and Coffee Kids.
- Visit coffee-farming families. Learning about the challenges faced by coffee farmers in person is a life-altering experience that will change the way you look at your daily cup. Check out these upcoming trips from True Roots (November 14 to 17) or De La Gente (February 17 to 24).
So on this National Coffee Day, don’t just look for free coffee. Make your coffee purchase matter by looking into what the company selling you that coffee is doing in support of farmers, their livelihoods, and nature. And in doing so, know that you helped support the global effort to make coffee more sustainable.