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Change Agent

Bicycle Coffee Co. pedals fair-trade coffee

It delivers by bike and keeps overhead low so it can sell 'ethical' coffee at a competitive price.

By Rachel CernanskyDowser.org / September 8, 2011

A coffee grower picks coffee fruits in a plantation near Montenegro in Quindio province of Colombia. Colombia is the world's largest producer of high-quality Arabica beans.

JOSE MIGUEL GOMEZ/Reuters

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Every Thursday, thanks to a content partnership with brother-sister duo Journey of Action, Dowser.org explores Gen Y changemakers – and how they fit in with the rest of the world.

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In 2010, the United States imported 24 million 60-kilogram (132-lb.) bags of coffee. It's the second-largest importer in the world, after the European Union.

And here is where that coffee came from. The top five, in order, are Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia and Guatemala – all regions that share, aside from similar weather patterns, developing economies. Coffee is the second-most valuable commodity exported from developing countries, after oil.

However, the majority of coffee that you see on supermarket shelves is sold at a steep markup that increases the profits of the company selling it to you, without helping the farmer who grew the beans and harvested them under the hot sun.

By now, most people have heard of "fair trade." But the real-life, on-the-ground effects of the model are often overlooked. So here's a quick breakdown of what fair trade really means:

Rather than rely on the fluctuating, often low prices that the global commodity market tends to offer, Fair Trade International (FLO) guarantees farmers a minimum per-pound price for their product. That means they can sell beans into a market that promises them a "fair" price, which right now for coffee in the United States is $1.40 a pound, and five cents above market price if the conventional market surpasses the fair trade price. Here are detailed fair trade standards for the United States.

On the whole, fair trade is widely praised not only because it boosts impoverished farmers' income and marks a small step toward equalizing the very imbalanced global economy, but also because it frees up resources for the greater communities in which farmers live.

By earning a better price for their crops, farmers are often able to afford goods and services that are considered necessities in the developed world, but are still a form of luxury in developing economies – such as the ability to send children to school.

Fair trade can also involve companies reinvesting in the community in the form of development projects that benefit entire towns or villages, not just individual families. Because fair trade companies are often built upon principles of providing a high-quality product to the consumer while also benefiting the product's origin community, you'll often see that kind of reinvestment being made to build a school, recreation center, or even a hospital, for example, or to help with other needs identified by the community.

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