Published on
the Toronto Star/Canada

How to Buy Coffee with a Conscience

Craig and Marc Kielburger

Are you reading this newspaper with a coffee in hand?For millions of Canadians, that's the beginning of a ritual that will see 40 million cups of coffee sold nationwide every day.

But as we reach across the table for our first cup of joe, how many of us really know where our coffee comes from? While as Canadians we often see ourselves as progressive, our social conscience does not always filter through to our daily decisions.

Take coffee, for example. Despite this country's massive intake of it, fair-trade coffee remains only a tiny fraction of the overall market.

Sure, fair-trade sales in Canada are rising, and store shelves feature products - from coffee to clothing - marketed as "worker-friendly" and "sustainable," but ethical consumerism in Canada lags far behind many places overseas.

About 70 per cent of worldwide socially conscious products are sold in Europe. Home to the fair-trade movement, its ethical products are mainstream, not niche.

Many European countries passed laws encouraging ethical manufacturing, while others run fair-trade public awareness campaigns. The EU Parliament even serves fair-trade coffee at its meetings.

Throughout the continent, people have realized that the choices they make at their local stores can have global repercussions.

So why is Canada playing catch-up?

Part of the problem is this country has no regulations on who can use the term "fair trade," so countless companies market themselves as ethical - even if they are not certified as such.

Last year, more than 450 tonnes of "fair trade" coffee sold in Canada was not officially certified, so it's impossible to confirm how ethical its manufacturing actually was.

"The market is becoming swamped," says Gavin Fridell, author of Fair Trade Coffee: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Market Driven Social Justice. "These (products) will continue to be watered down unless we regulate them."


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The most widely accepted certification comes from TransFair Canada and Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, which are affiliated but use different labels.

They verify that companies pay workers fairly, use sustainable environmental practices and invest in the economies of countries where goods are manufactured.

But their certification process can be too expensive for small companies, so other labels have sprung up, all with their own standards.

So even the definition of "fair trade" has become blurred.

Fridell says Canadians should pressure the government for a better regulated, more streamlined labelling process. "To change the world is going to take democratic action," he explains. "People have to ask themselves what their politicians are doing and what kinds of policies they are promoting."

Canada needs a legal definition of "fair trade" and standards on who can claim to be ethical. Monitoring and certification can come from a nationwide fair-trade watchdog.

The government and large firms need to take the lead with their purchases.

By supporting certified fair-trade companies - even if that means paying a little more - consumers can put the world on notice that ethics is not something Canadians are willing to compromise.

After all, elections may come every four years, but we vote with our wallets every day.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are children's rights activists and co-founded Free The Children, which is active in the developing world.

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