Saturday, October 27, 2007

Fair-trade products fare well

from the Houston Chronicle

More businesses are selling the coffee, tea and sugar that help make faraway farmers' lives better


Catalina Coffee Shop's exposed brick walls are decorated with black and white photographs of Guatemala — owner Max Gonzalez's homeland and one of several nations producing the fair-trade coffee he pours.

At Té House of Tea, owner Connie Lacobie measured fair-trade teas from India one afternoon at the serene shop filled with bags of tea, teapots and aprons.

And several Houston chefs now add fair-trade sugars sold by Sugar Land's Wholesome Sweeteners to their cocktails and desserts.

More and more Bayou City businesses are helping farmers earn a better living with each cup of fair-trade coffee, tea or spoonful of sugar they sell.

"It's really wonderful to be able to know that with my little coffee shop in Houston, I can actually promote a better global economy just one bean at a time," said Gonzalez, owner of the Washington Avenue coffee shop where more than 70 percent of its coffees bear the fair-trade label.

Nearly a decade ago, a few U.S. retailers began selling Fair Trade Certified coffee, with 76,059 pounds of coffee imported in 1998.

Last year, 64.8 million pounds of fair-trade coffee were imported to the U.S., and the majority comes from Latin America.

Over the years, Oakland-based TransFair USA, the national organization that certifies fair-trade products, has added tea, cocoa, rice, fresh fruit, sugar — and most recently, vanilla and fresh flowers — to the list of goods it guarantees were raised by farmers and workers who receive fair prices and wages.

Coffee prices have climbed recently, and Friday's price for washed Arabica, the highest quality coffee, was $1.21 a pound on the Intercontinental Exchange, the futures market formerly known as the New York Board of Trade.

The Fair Trade minimum price is set at $1.21 per pound for now, plus an organic differential of 20 cents per pound if the coffee is certified organic. The fair-trade farmers also receive an extra 10 cents per pound to invest at the individual farm, cooperative or community level.

This price is set by an international organization, which also certifies fair-trade operations.

More than 700 businesses
These days, more than 700 U.S. businesses — including several in Houston — serve a dose of global consciousness with their food products imported from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

"Now, we're really seeing an acceptance in more of the mainstream arena," said Anthony Marek, communications director for TransFair USA.

For October's Fair Trade Month, several national and local retailers marketed and launched fair-trade products.

On Oct. 1, warehouse retailer Sam's Club began selling fair-trade coffee grown by Brazilian farmers. To celebrate fair-trade month, Starbucks Coffee Co. served fair-trade blends of Latin American and African coffees as its "Coffee of the Week" for three weeks in October.

"The more Fair Trade Certified is mainstreamed, the more we can help farmers around the world," Marek said. "The most powerful vehicle for change is the shopping cart."

In Houston, both nonprofit and for-profit stores report growing sales of fair-trade goods.

At the nonprofit Taft Street Coffee House in the Montrose area, the operators are considering buying a coffee farm in Nicaragua.

They plan to teach people how to run it and then turn it over to a cooperative that would supply them.

"We want the people who buy our coffee to know the specific farmer, the specific village being impacted by someone who pays more for a cup of coffee," said Scott Snodgrass, a Taft Street manager.

Rice University students run a nonprofit Rice Coffeehouse that serves only fair-trade brews.

And at the Ten Thousand Villages in Rice Village, sales of colorful Peruvian pendants, Bangladeshi bags, Vietnamese vases and other arts and crafts should surpass $612,000.

Every year for the past seven years of its operation in Houston, sales increased at the local outlet of the national nonprofit organization.

Ten Thousand Villages is a member of the International Fair Trade Association, a global network of fair-trade organizations trying to improve the livelihoods of artisans in developing nations.

"People have been very supportive in Houston with fair trade," said Cassandra Martin, manager of the Houston store. "I think there's a real interest in it. There's an increased awareness of it."

On the for-profit side
For-profit businesses in Houston are also increasingly stocking fair-trade goods.

Té House of Tea opened in 2006, and it sells fair-trade teas from India, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Kenya. Consumers spend 30 cents to $1 more for fair-trade tea at the shop versus the restaurant's nonfair-trade drinks.

"If you spend a dollar extra, it benefits the workers," said Lacobie, who is originally from Hong Kong. "The main thing is that the consumer knows this is important. If the consumer does not demand it, how do you stimulate the merchant to provide it?"

Esteban Tovar, who is the southwest coordinator for University of Houston Students for Fair Trade, recently visited Nicaragua and believes consumers can help coffee growers.

"Consumer choices can make a very, very big impact," said Tovar.

He enjoyed a cup of coffee at Catalina, which opened six months ago.

Owner Gonzalez doesn't charge more for his fair-trade coffee drinks. He buys his beans from Houston's Katz Coffee, which sells both fair-trade and nonfair-trade coffee.

"It seems like in the last year, we've definitely seen a nice increase in our fair-trade sales," said Jeremy Williams, who works at the four-year-old Katz Coffee.

Several Houston-area coffee and sugar importers are also stocking fair-trade foods.

In the last two years, Wholesome Sweeteners paid more than $500,000 in the form of premiums to farmer cooperatives in Malawi, Paraguay and Costa Rica.

"You can be an ethical company and still have a very profitable business model," said Pauline McKee, marketing director for Wholesome Sweeteners, which sells fair-trade sugar to upscale restaurants.

"The more profitable and the more successful we are, the more money and success we can share with the farmers and producers."

Wholesome Sweeteners and several other Houston companies recently showcased their fair-trade products at a University of Houston event organized by Students for Fair Trade, which seeks to teach students about fair trade.

"This campus has people from 112 countries. A lot of our group members are from these countries," said Timothy O'Brien, who founded Students for Fair Trade.

"I think that's the unique opportunity for these undergrads to enlighten other undergrads."

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