When Dave and I first talked about me writing a few of posts about a libertarian look at coffee, the obvious idea for a second one was the Fair Trade label. Luckily for me, my friend Kerry Howley has written a far better article on the subject than I would have for Reason magazine.
The summary version is that buying Fair Trade beans is one way of ensuring coffee farmers get a good price for their beans, but not the only way. Any high-end specialty roaster is going to be paying more than the commodity price for coffee, some of the best among them establishing relationships right at the origin.
In addition, Fair Trade has some significant drawbacks. It's expensive (roughly five times more costly than organic labeling), forces rigid requirements on farmers, and through its imposition of co-ops forces a middleman between farmers and bean buyers that obscures market signals about price and quality.
If you want to feel good about your coffee purchases, feel free to buy Fair Trade but don't buy it exclusively. Seek out exceptional roasters who build sustainable relationships with their growers and reward quality. That way you'll enjoy some truly great coffee and help change the structure of the bean market from commodity to specialized good.
Read the whole thing.