Fair Trade coffee gives congregations a lift
by Donald E. Skinner
As a religious people we're known for our partiality to coffee. Some have suggested that the coffee pot ranks right up there with the chalice as an item of reverence for us. Another thing we're known for, of course, is social justice activism. And now many of our congregations have found a way to combine coffee hour and social justice in a way that adds deeper meaning to our lives.
Just about half of our congregations, around 500, are now buying and serving fairly traded coffee as a way of supporting small coffee growers and human rights on three continents. Fairly traded products promote grassroots development through direct, equitable trade. “Fair Trade” products are certified by Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International, an umbrella group formed by Fair Trade companies.
The Seventh Principle Committee at All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, D.C., began serving and selling Fair Trade coffee a year ago. Committee member Marc Ferarra estimates they've sold 1,000 pounds in that time including the coffee already served. “We kicked it off with a Fair Trade coffee tasting one Sunday. We set up a half-dozen coffee makers so people could try the various kinds. It's been going great ever since.”
Most of the Fair Trade coffee served in UU congregations comes through Equal Exchange, a worker-owned Fair Trade organization in Canton, Massachusetts. Congregations use the coffee at coffee hour, in their offices, and at meetings. Many also sell packets of it to members. Equal Exchange also offers fairly traded tea and cocoa. Organic chocolate bars will be available this fall.
Equal Exchange is part of the International Fair Trade Association, a network of businesses whose primary mission is fairly traded products. Other members include Ten Thousand Villages, a network of stores offering fairly traded products; SERRV, which produces a catalog of crafts and food products; and Marketplace Handwork of India, which works with women's cooperatives producing clothing. Founded in 1986, Equal Exchange trades with twenty-five small-farmer organizations across Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Last year, the company paid more than $2 million dollars in above-market prices to small-farmer cooperatives and facilitated the payment of more than $1 million dollars in preharvest credit, helping farmers to stay out of debt.
Equal Exchange has “coffee partnerships” with nine faith traditions, but none have taken to Fair Trade coffee like Unitarian Universalists, said Erbin Crowell of Equal Exchange. “It's been amazing,” he said. “Unitarian Universalists have been the most enthusiastic of our religious partnerships. Nearly 50 percent of UU congregations have been involved in this.” Last year, participating congregations from all nine faith traditions bought more than twenty-two tons of fairly traded coffee, tea, and cocoa. “This makes an enormous difference for small farmers and their families,” Crowell said.
Equal Exchange's other coffee partnerships include Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Church of the Brethren, Mennonite, Presbyterian, United Methodist, United Church of Christ, and Quaker organizations. As of last year, more than 8,000 congregations were participating. For its work with Unitarian Universalist congregations, Equal Exchange has partnered with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), which announced the coffee project at General Assembly 2001. Equal Exchange contributes about twenty cents per pound to UUSC for all coffee, tea, or cocoa bought by congregations. So far UUSC has received about $18,000 and has made grants totaling $12,000 to a coffee-growing cooperative in Guatemala for a women's leadership training program and other projects.
Allison Kent of UUSC said using fairly traded products improves economics, the environment, and people's lives. “There's an amazing trickle-down,” she said. “Having Fair Trade income can mean that farmers are able to send their children to school and obtain medical care. It can reduce forced labor of children, and it can help women become equal partners.” Further, she said, 85 percent of fairly traded coffee sold in the U.S. is certified organic, and its higher price encourages small growers to engage in sustainable, chemical-free farming.
“The coffee project is a way to engage with the economy of the world in accordance with spiritual values,” said Kent. “It can also open a window into other areas. Coffee is just the beginning.”
Social justice groups at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, had a good reason for joining the Fair Trade coffee project last March. Charlie Clements, the new UUSC president, was coming to visit. “We'd been talking for a year or more about Fair Trade coffee,” said Walt Wells, local UUSC representative. “We decided we wanted to have it in place when Charlie came.” All Souls members have been willing to pay the higher price, Wells said. “They know that it supports human rights.”
In addition to its redeeming social value, does the coffee taste good? Alan Basinger, kitchen supervisor at First and Second Church in Boston says, “I'd describe it as a robust, very hearty, fragrant coffee. It's very well received by people here.”
Basinger brews Equal Exchange coffee each Sunday morning and also for many meetings. Pastries and other Sunday morning snacks are bought from the bakery at Haley House, an economic development initiative inspired by the Catholic Worker Movement. “Supporting both these groups fits with the church's mission,” he said.
Congregations are also finding that the coffee generates broader discussions about globalization, environmental issues, and other Fair Trade products. All Souls in Washington, D.C., built on its coffee success by cosponsoring a Fair Trade Fair in April, including vendors who sold Fair Trade clothing, crafts, and artwork. The other sponsor of the fair was Coop America, an organization working to create a socially just and environmentally sustainable world.
Al Benford of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East of Manchester, Connecticut, visited coffee growers in Nicaragua last year on a trip sponsored by Equal Exchange. He has been sharing what he learned with other congregations. “I learned that Fair Trade coffee makes a huge difference in the ability of people to lead satisfying lives,” said Benford, who can be reached through the Society or at email@example.com. Growers who have more dependable incomes because of fairly traded coffee are now beginning to develop an ecotourism industry as well.
Kent, at the UUSC, adds, “Making responsible economic choices that promote the human rights of thousands of small farmers and their families around the world is a way that UUs and congregations can put their faith into action.”