Can you live ethically? Part 1

A few yeas ago, I read Eva Wiseman’s article about the Dilemmas of Trying to Live Ethically. It profoundly changed the way, I looked at myself. Up until that point, I considered myself as living very ethical. I am vegetarian and have been for a long time. Most years, I did not set a foot in a plane, we only own one car for environmental reasons, we mostly buy second hand clothing. I thought I was doing really well on the ethical smugness bingo card of life. Hm, maybe not.

Try as hard as you might, there is truly no real way of ever living fully ethically. The sheer fact of my existence will hurt people somewhere, so I thought, I go through a day and look at some of the items, I use every day and their ethical impact. This will be talked about in various blog posts, because this is going to get long. Mainly because there is a lot to consider and also: I think about this stuff a lot, I got a lot of emotions and thoughts.



I like to start my day with coffee. In fact, I am a huge coffee drinker, we go through three to four packs a week. I know. We buy fairtrade coffee and for a long time, I kidded myself that I was doing something great here. Coffee is a huge problem and fairtrade is only marginally better. The price of coffee – like most commodities – is traded on an international basis, meaning that price fluctuations are subject to supply and demand. Regularly, coffee prices crash and fall below the price of production leaving many farmers with earnings that are below the price of production. By buying coffee (Fair Trade or not), I am actively condoning: Poverty, child labour, poor working conditions and environmental degredation and habitat loss.

But surely, I hear you say: Fair Trade must be better. Hm, well, a bit. But there are some key issues. First of all, the grower has to pay (yes, you read that right) to be certified (the same goes for Soil Association Accreditation, thus why there are so few fair trade organic coffees, because who can afford this). Imagine, me telling you: Hey, let me raise you out of poverty, but first give me some cash, so you are allowed to use my brand designed in some rich Western country. Another problem is the fact that any bean can be Fair Trade and thus quality does not come into the equation, resulting now in many roasters shying away from Fair Trade coffee. And thus there is a surplus of coffee… so Fair Trade coffee grower now sits on their beans. The guaranteed price is no good to them, then. It also means that the base price guaranteed is the most they will ever get. The next issue is one of accessibility: Those growers who need it most cannot access it. Fair Trade is ruled by cooperatives in countries that are already further ahead in development, which means that small farmers in countries without such development are being left out and have no access to Fair Trade. Bureaucracy is another issue, fair trade policies require a meticulous paper chain to demonstrate that their rules are being adhered to, but this is prohibitive to many farmers, who either lack the skills, time or monetary incentive to do so, thus benefiting the co-op model over the individual farmer. Very little money actually goes back to the individual farmer, most of the surplus ends up with the co-op and is used for infrastructure building offices and warehouses, which is truly not of benefit for the individual farmer at all. Another issue is that Fair Trade says little to nothing about the ecological and environmental impact of coffee. Coffee used to be grown under a canopy of trees, but the growth in demand means that for the last 20 years or so, a switch has been made to sun cultivation and thus a loss in habitat.

Some of you may say, well, I drink coffee from the Rainforest Alliance growers. Yes, it is true, that Rainforest Alliance, a relative new kid on the blog in comparison to Fair Trade, only gives their seal to growers who don’t deforest for coffee production. They guarantee no minimum price for the coffee though and there has been a lot of controversy in recent years with regards to labour rights violations, some journalists even called it defacto slavery with workers being kept in wage poverty.

So should we all just stop drinking coffee? No, we cannot because this would be ethically horrendous, the impact on the livelihoods of millions of people involved in the growing and production of coffee destroyed. I have no clear answers as to what is the best possible way to deal with this. According to the Ethical Consumer, the best way to go at the moment is to buy Fair Trade and Organic. They also recommend some coffee brands and highlight some coffee schemes that are interesting. Pods are never a good solution.

So these are my thoughts on coffee and I have not even eaten anything yet. Tomorrow, I shall be looking at the ethical implications of flour.