Between eating organic produce, natural beef, cutting back on carbs, and ordering sweatshop free T-shirts, all while buying products from local small businesses and donating to the Human Rights Coalition, I simply haven't had time for "fair trade." In fact, I've never really even had a clear sense of what "fair trade" means--other than it's a buzz term for something that has to do with trade from other countries, is largely associated with coffee, and is "good." Well recently, "buying fair trade" has become one of my celebrated causes, and happily, the transition has been a million times easier than not shopping at the Gap.

Purchasing fair trade coffee and tea is as easy as looking for the label at the supermarket or asking for it at your local Starbucks--and when you do, it helps ensure the perseverance of the farm that grew it. In a nutshell, fair trade farmers belong to a cooperative that ensures they are paid at least $1.26 per pound of coffee they produce, or $1.41 per pound if the coffee they grow is organic. Many farmers who do not belong to a fair trade cooperative get something around the world market price of 70 cents for a pound of arabica beans, which may very well be below the price it actually cost them to produce it. This means farmers and laborers are working themselves ragged--and for all their efforts, they're still starving to death.

SUPPLY VS. DEMAND

The reason coffee can be purchased so cheaply is because it's overproduced globally--meaning the supply is higher than the demand. Farmers are quite often desperate to get rid of their harvests at a cheap price rather than not at all. Thus, being a member of a fair trade cooperative ensures farmers a fair price for their product, so they can maintain their farms, and help sustain the economy in their community. If a farm is paid a fair trade price for coffee, they can pay their workers a fair wage, buy the necessary equipment and supplies to produce a quality bean--and, because they belong to a democratic cooperative, they then funnel money into community programs that are decided on by the co-op.

Of course, because the fair trade cooperatives are making sure that coffee farmers are being paid what they deserve, this price is passed onto the consumer. So while over two pounds of Yuban coffee costs around six dollars, a pound of fair trade Stumptown roasted house blend costs $11. For a cheapo like me, I must then ask, "Why pay more?"

QUALITY VS. QUANTITY

A common criticism of the fair trade model is that it's "babysitting farmers." If a farm can't produce a product and sell it for a profit, the argument stands that the operation should simply go out of business. This, however, is where quality factors in.

If a farmer loses money by selling their harvest for 70 cents a pound, they can't maintain quality standards, and the product suffers. This is why Folgers coffee is bad, and Stumptown coffee is rich and delicious. Folgers is low-quality coffee grown on farms that exist in dire poverty, while Stumptown coffee is grown on farms and estates which are adequately funded by the sale of their beans.

Haven Bourque is the director of marketing and communications for TransFair USA, the only third-party certifier of fair trade practices in the U.S. Her organization makes sure products (coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas) are produced under the fair trade model--meaning coffee farmers are paid at least $1.26 a pound--then she promotes the products so Americans are more inclined to buy them, thereby improving the success of the entire system. Bourque not only touts the quality of fair trade products, but the immense good that fair trade does for developing nations. (It should be noted, "fair trade" does not necessarily equal "great product"; however it is socially conscious, and most likely helps produce a product of higher quality.)

DEVELOPING NATIONS DEVELOPING

Because money made on fair trade products is automatically put back into the farmer-owned cooperatives, valuable social services also become available to the communities. Bourque describes the Huatusco co-op in Northern Mexico, which has supported a program for three years to bring doctors to the remote community--most specifically to give women much needed pap smears and treatment for cervical cancer, which runs rampant because of untreated HPV infections. So far, 800 fair trade co-op members have directly benefited from the cancer treatment and prevention measures they themselves have funded.

However, she notes that this isn't the case in every co-op, or every year.

"It depends on the conditions," Bourque says. "In really bad years, the farmers don't have enough money for food, so they'll decide to allocate all their money for that. In years when things are better, they might build a medical center. It depends on what the co-op needs. Because they're democratically organized, each member has a vote."

Bourque continues, "The Cocla co-op in Peru has organized a program where three members of their community are trained to become healthcare educators, then the three educators train 20 people in other communities, who in turn will train the families who belong to the cooperative. The training topics address things like family planning--which is a big deal since it's a Catholic country. The educators also address the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, which is a major issue, especially in poor rural communities where the men have to migrate to the city in search of work"--and quite obviously, encounter women.

Once you understand the concept, there's really no reason not to buy fair trade products--especially when the Green Mountain fair trade-certified coffee is only a shelf away from the Folgers at Fred Meyer. For one, you're buying it anyway, and secondly, you're helping women and children get medical care... or at the very least, food.

And finally, you're supporting a sustainable global economy--and doesn't that feel better than smashing it into the dirt?