Walk into any Eastside grocery store, and you’ll find hoards of people buying organic produce, cage-free eggs, and grass-fed, cruelty-free beef. Some pick out all-natural baked items, others opt for snacks from companies that donate to rainforest conservation.
This ethics-based selection of food can also been seen in restaurants, as mocked in a Portlandia sketch in which diners demand from their waiter an endless stream of details regarding the origins and quality of life of their chicken.
But what of coffee shops? It seems the same standards don’t apply to the average consumer’s latte. While restaurants hawk organic and humanely-sourced food, few coffee shops undergo the albeit complicated and more expensive process of sourcing fair-trade beans. One reason could be that, despite the Eastside’s caffeine addiction, seemingly nobody is worried about the origins of their coffee.
“On the whole, a very small segment of the population here would say ‘I’m gonna go to this particular coffee shop just because its fair trade’ as opposed to the much larger percentage that says ‘I’m gonna go because this shop is convenient and it tastes good,'” said Morgan Harris, founder and owner of Mercurys Coffee, which serves only organic and fair-trade beans at its seven locations. “I would say people are choosing what they perceive to be convenience, rather than sticking to their moral values.”
Fair-trade coffee, which strives to provide better wages and working conditions for coffee farmers, has remained a niche market, though sales are growing. According to a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, fair-trade beans make up 20 percent of the specialty coffees market. That chunk was worth $12 billion in 2006 — the latest data available — and it’s the fastest-growing segment of the United States coffee market, with sales growing at about 40 percent a year. That said, fair trade is estimated to control just 3 percent of the U.S. coffee market.
Most coffee purveyors and drinkers alike have yet to adopt fair trade into their repertoire of socially-conscious, health-focused purchases.
“Organic definitely trumps fair trade in terms of mainstream popularity,” said Harris. “Fair trade is a widely known term, but I don’t know that nearly as many people know the facts behind it.”
For this reason, business owners who sell coffee haven’t found much of a demand for ethically sourced beans. Linh Van, co-owner of St. James Espresso in Kirkland, buys coffee from Caffé D’arte, a specialty roaster focused more on flavor than bean origin.
“We typically don’t get any questions regarding origin,” said Van. “Most questions we get are about taste profiles to help customers find a roast that they might enjoy.”
Even Harris cited a lack of interest in fair trade from local customers.
“There were years that I went along with doing this, thinking to myself, I’m a little shocked that nobody even recognized it, or made comment about it,” he said.
To Harris, the responsibility of fair-trade education rests on those who choose to sell the beans.
“If you don’t get the information out to people, just selling it isn’t going to be enough,” he said. “You can have a little sign that says you sell fair trade coffee, but at the end of the day, out of 500 people, how many are going to notice that?”
The biggest deterrent for shops considering selling fair-trade coffee is price. There’s hardly any getting around the fact that fair trade is more expensive, especially if you want to be certified and go through the long, sometimes convoluted process of displaying official certification logos in your shop. With few customers clamoring for the change, the process and cost might not seem worthwhile.
“It would likely take considerable time and effort,” said Van of switching to fair trade beans. “Making the transition could be expensive, both in any cost difference of the beans and as well in any customers we lose as a result.”
Van’s points echo historical complaints about organic produce, though, and that sector of the food market continues to grow in popularity. If fair-trade coffee follows a similar trajectory, often-progressive Eastside coffee lovers might care just as much about how their coffee was harvested as how it tastes.
The number of Mercurys Coffee locations was corrected.