The Coffee Crisis and Fair Trade

As economic globalization has accelerated in recent years, and its negative impacts have become more apparent, Friends have been called to respond in ways that speak to our faith. For many, John Woolman, a New Jersey Quaker active in the abolitionist movement in the 1700s, has been a vital source of inspiration and reflection as we seek alternatives. Responding to the globalization occurring in his day, John Woolman appealed to Friends to consider their consumer habits as part of their witness to the world around them. Recognizing the links between trade and human suffering, he asked that we consider the products that we purchase and "try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions." These leadings led John Woolman himself to avoid rum and molasses, products that fed the slave trade.

But while he was concerned with avoiding the particularly pernicious products of his day, John Woolman also saw in our daily economic lives an opportunity to fulfill God’s vision of a just world. To the extent that we are influenced by God’s love, he believed that Friends should be moved to "take hold of every opportunity to lessen the distress of the afflicted and increase the happiness of creation," turning our possessions "into the channel of universal love." In this notion we can see the potential for creating positive economic alternatives in our world.

While we cannot say where John Woolman would focus his perceptive eye today, we can attempt to look at the world around us with a similar sense of the connections between our own consumer habits and the world we would create. Examining our purchases, we may find products or services that indeed sow the seeds of suffering and conflict. Alternatively, we may seek out ways that we might sow the seeds of love and cooperation.

Today, Friends are called in many directions as we attempt to "increase the happiness of creation." Our attention may be turned to challenging sweatshops, environmental degradation, or genetic engineering. Likewise we might seek out union-made products, join our local food co-op, or support organic farming. As communities of faith, we may also be called to consider the simple percolator that welcomes us at the rise of meeting.

The cup of coffee that we hold in our hand, that we share in fellowship, is perhaps our most direct link to poor communities around the world. As the second most heavily traded commodity in the world (after oil), coffee is a major source of foreign exchange across Latin America, Africa, and Asia. We in the United States consume 20 percent of the world’s production. As such an important global commodity, this humble bean presents an opportunity to impact the lives of millions of people.

For many of us, coffee is an essential part of the day. For small farmers, who grow the majority of the beans that go into our cup, coffee is a vital source of income, a cash crop grown alongside subsistence crops that provides for medical fees, clothing, and educational expenses for children. But these farmers have always had a hard time getting a fair price for their products. Isolated from markets, they are forced to sell to middlemen at low prices. Ignored by their governments, they lack clean water, healthcare, and access to education. Underserved by banks, they must obtain loans at high rates from local moneylenders.

Last year, matters were made worse as world coffee market prices fell to their lowest point in decades, crashing from a high of $1.40 per pound in 1999 to about 45 cents by last summer. Coffee-growing communities have been devastated. Around the world, small farmers have been forced to abandon their farms: in Kenya, entire crops were left to rot on the bushes; in Nicaragua, unemployed farm workers have set up shantytowns in the cities, demanding support from the government; and along Arizona’s southern border, Mexican farmers have died trying to enter the United States to find work. To date, the crisis has shown no sign of lifting.

Knowing of the structural problems of the coffee trade and its negative impacts on small farmers, Friends could determine that coffee is a product that we should abandon, much in the way that John Woolman attempted to extricate himself from the slave industry. Or we could take hold of the cup in our hand as an opportunity to do justice in the world, to "increase the happiness of creation."

In my own life I have been blessed with the opportunity to witness to the inequities of the coffee trade and attempt to change the system through the construction of an alternative: fair trade. Since 1994, I have worked with a worker-owned fair trade organization called Equal Exchange, which works with democratically organized cooperatives of small coffee farmers. By purchasing directly from these co-ops, Equal Exchange ensures that more of the money from the coffee trade reaches the people who do the hard work of growing and harvesting the beans. By offering affordable credit and providing a long-term trading partner, we can offer farmers stability in a volatile market. And, perhaps most importantly given low market prices, Equal Exchange pays farmers a guaranteed minimum price of $1.26 per pound—well over double world market prices.

Farmer cooperatives, in turn, play a vital role as community-owned economic institutions, providing services that are otherwise unavailable. Some have established schools for their children, regional bus lines, and training programs. In indigenous communities, these co-ops are a vital expression of economic and cul-tural independence in a rapidly encroaching world. Many seek to strengthen the role of women in their communities through gender relations workshops, leadership training, and legal rights programs. Others focus on sustain-able agriculture and environmental preservation.

In 1999, in partnership with the New England Regional Office of AFSC, Equal Exchange launched the AFSC Coffee Project. This initiative provided Friends meetings with educational resources on the coffee trade and a concrete way to make a difference. Since the launch of the project, over 80 Friends meetings, schools, and organizations have been involved in this effort, serving fairly traded coffee, offering it as a fundraiser, and forming buying clubs for members to purchase coffee for home use.

Through our Interfaith Program, Equal Exchange has created similar partnerships with other denominations. As word of the program has spread, over 4,500 congregations of many denominations and faiths have participated, purchasing over 60 tons of fairly traded coffee last year. Congregants also encouraged local businesses to carry fairly traded products at a critical time for small farmers.

Friends have long been called to examine our economic lives in the context of our faith. For many, John Woolman’s witness has led us to extend our Peace Testimony to our consumer choices, where the roots of conflict can often be discovered. In doing so, we may be inspired not only to avoid certain products, but also to take hold of opportunities to support positive change. In an era of globalization where we may often feel powerless to influence the world, John Woolman’s vision of an economics guided by love is a great gift.

Erbin Crowell

Erbin Crowell is a member of Providence (R.I.) Meeting and director of Equal Exchange's Interfaith Program. He may be reached at For more information on the AFSC Coffee Project and Equal Exchange, e-mail , visit, or call (781) 830-0303 ext. 228.