How Chicago became the top “fair trade” city in the United States

By Megan Kramer

Rich Troche, manager of Everybody’s Coffee in Uptown, knows everything about the shop’s medium-roast “Coffee of the Month” – who roasted it, where it was grown, how it was processed and even what different processes do to the beans.

In March the featured coffee came from the San Ignacio farm in Peru and was roasted by the Metropolis Coffee Company in Chicago. The coffee has a tangy lemon undertone and is served in purple ceramic mugs.

Alternative rock plays unobtrusively throughout the large, open space at the cafe. Baristas serve specialty drinks to customers who are chatting or working on laptops amid stacks of books. To care for both its patrons and the farmers who grow the beans, Everybody’s Coffee serves fair trade and direct trade coffee from around the world.

According to the Washington-based, nonprofit Fair Trade Federation, fair trade is “an approach to business and development based on dialogue, transparency and respect that seeks to create greater equity in the international trading system.” In a fair trade agreement, farmers and artisans in developing countries negotiate fair prices for their products, which usually result in a better payout.

David Meyers, roasting coffee in Rogers Park, is the mind behind the Chicago Coffee Confederation and Café Chicago. (Megan Kramer/Medill)
David Meyers, roasting coffee in Rogers Park, is the mind behind the Chicago Coffee Confederation and Café Chicago. (Megan Kramer/Medill)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates fair trade labeling, while nonprofits including Fairtrade International and Fair Trade USA certify and set standards and minimum prices for products. Direct trade is similar to fair trade, but buyers negotiate directly with sellers rather than through a fair trade middleman. While some see direct trade as more efficient, there are disadvantages for sellers and consumers if buyers don’t set their standards very high.

Fair trade farmers and artisans also aim to pay their workers a fair wage, avoid sweatshop conditions and child labor and attempt to engage in environmentally friendly practices.

Bringing it home

With the help of Chicago Fair Trade, Chicago became a fair trade city in May 2011, making it the largest such city in the U.S. and the third-largest globally after London and Toronto. Founded in 2006, Chicago Fair Trade comprises 70 member organizations including businesses, nonprofits and universities.

In order to gain fair trade status for the city, Chicago Fair Trade and volunteers created a campaign through Fair Trade Campaigns, a global organization dedicated to increasing consumer awareness about fair trade, and met the required goals. These included reaching out to retailers and community organizations and getting them to offer fair trade products.

Today over 300 outlets sell fair trade goods in Chicago, and Chicago Fair Trade is working to establish fair trade institutions (such as schools, universities and hospitals) in each of the city’s 77 neighborhoods.

In an attempt to offer social justice in a mug, Everybody’s Coffee opened in February 2014 at 935 W. Wilson Ave.

“The idea when we opened was that we could brew coffee that was ethically sourced and bought,” Troche said. “A lot of the coffee we buy is roasted here in Chicago. We work with roasters who buy direct and fair trade coffee and bring it here to the city as a green bean, and then they roast it here.”

The shop offers dark roast and a different medium, single-origin roast each month with the aim of appealing to a range of coffee drinkers’ tastes.

“Someone who just wants a dark roast coffee, like my grandfather, can come in and buy that,” Troche said. “Somebody who enjoys fair trade organic and direct trade coffee, and wants to hear the story of where the coffee came from and how it was processed, can come in as well.”

Everybody’s Coffee opened in Uptown in February 2014 and sells fair trade and direct trade coffee. (Megan Kramer/Medill)
Everybody’s Coffee opened in Uptown in February 2014 and sells fair trade and direct trade coffee. (Megan Kramer/Medill)

Everybody’s Coffee emphasizes relationships, whether between farmer and roaster, shop and customer, or even customer and customer.

“Coffee is very much about relationships,” Troche said. “That’s why people go to coffee shops a lot of times, to meet people and talk with people.”

He added that the shop wants be the “third place” for its customers. “The first place is your home, the second is your work and the third place is where you hang out,” he said.

The Café Chicago project

In 2011 the Latino Union of Chicago and the Chicago Coffee Confederation, a group of small-batch coffee roasters, teamed up to create their own fair trade endeavor, Café Chicago, which takes the fair trade model and applies it locally. The company buys coffee beans from La FEM farmers, a farming cooperative in Esteli, Nicaragua, that is run entirely by women and focuses on women’s rights and empowerment.

Café Chicago then roasts, packages and sells the coffee to local restaurants, grocery stores and directly to consumers from its website. All proceeds go to the nonprofit Latino Union of Chicago, which works to improve social and economic conditions for low-income immigrant workers through various programs that address issues including unsafe working conditions, immigration reform and policies, and leadership and other training.

Café Chicago took the fair trade movement a step further not only by helping La FEM farmers and their families in Nicaragua but also by providing jobs for and teaching new skills to immigrant workers in Chicago.

Originally from Mexico City, Alejandro Serrano has worked as a roaster at Café Chicago for the last 18 months and says he is learning a lot on the job.

“We focus on improving our skills, learning every day more about coffee and the coffee roasting business,” he said. “We also focus on sales and on training new members so they can participate in the cooperative.”

Serrano says there are currently five people employed at Café Chicago in North Park and that the leadership of the organization has improved. They are working to expand the business in order to make it self-sufficient and separate from the Latino Union while still supporting it, Serrano said. Café Chicago advertises its coffee on Facebook and other websites.

Not without setbacks

Meanwhile, the Chicago Coffee Confederation has hit a few bumps in its conceptual road. David Meyers founded the confederation in 2009 when his original business venture, Resistance Coffee, started to grow. The group eventually comprised three fair-trade and organic coffee roasters – Grinderman Coffee, Miscellaneous Treats and Resistance Coffee – but is now much smaller.
“CCC is largely merely an idea now,” Meyers said. “Our other coffee roasters, who were great contributors to the development of Café Chicago, have moved to other cities.”

Even though Meyers acknowledges that fair trade as an alternative economic model can be a struggle due to factors like these, he said it can still be a movement for justice by “taking bites out of the capitalist economy and making it more social.”

While smaller fair trade projects can encounter problems, larger-scale fair trade endeavors are no strangers to controversy.
In July 2013 The Christian Science Monitor reported that the Starbucks C.A.F.E. (Coffee and Farmer Equity) Practices program was under fire for false fair trade claims. Reporter Kelsey Timmerman visited coffee growers in El Tablón de Gomez and Nariño, Colombia, where Starbucks was reportedly buying its coffee.

According to the report, very few people in these locations had heard of Starbucks or recognized its logo when he first asked around – even though the company claimed that there were 22,000 farms participating in its program. Timmerman eventually found some faded white C.A.F.E. Practices plaques affixed to the sides of homes, yet people living in them either had not heard of Starbucks or said that they were still waiting for the company’s help.

“Even the farmers who sell knowingly to Starbucks and those who had received assistance prefer to get their beans certified by and sold to Nespresso [the Swiss coffee brand from Nestlé], which pays 28 cents more per kilogram,” Timmerman wrote.

Starbucks still advertises ethical sourcing on its website and cites C.A.F.E Practices as a fundamental program for “[ensuring] coffee quality while promoting social, economic and environmental standards.” The company claims that 95.3 percent of its coffee was ethically sourced in 2013. Starbucks set a goal to reach 100 percent ethically sourced coffee by 2015, but queries to its corporate media relations division about the company’s progress resulted in referrals to the Starbucks website.

To figure out if a specific coffee really is fair trade, Troche suggests getting as close to the “heart” of the product as possible.

“Consumers who want to know if their coffee is fair trade or not [should] talk to the roaster,” he said. “If you’re buying roasted coffee, especially specialty coffee, you can ask them where, what co-op, why, how they bought it, how is it fair trade. They would know all these things because they’re the ones who bought it.”

Beyond java

Fair trade is not limited to coffee, however, and the range of products it encompasses is constantly expanding – from fruits and vegetables to clothing and wine. According to a survey done by Fair Trade USA, fair trade produce imports into the U.S. rose 37 percent from 2012 to 2013. Fair trade consumer packaged goods (including wine, sugar, cocoa and spices) imports rose 17.5 percent over the same period. Premiums, or money paid to farmers and artisans who grew/made the fair trade products, rose 5 percent over 2013, totaling nearly $40 million across 70 countries.

When successful, the far reach of the fair trade movement supports development in communities and cultures around the world. The nonprofit ASSIST Society in southwest suburban Evergreen Park, Illinois, was established in January 2013 by CEO and chief fundraiser Shannon Harris. After raising funds for many organizations and philanthropy projects including Save Darfur and Haiti Relief Fund, Harris wanted to create his own.

“I decided to place all of my efforts toward global projects that allowed me to become a greater example of being the change I wanted to see in the world,” he said.

ASSIST works with low-income communities including the Maasai and Samburu peoples in Kenya to preserve and enhance their ways of life through educational programs, resource assistance and self-sufficiency training. One of ASSIST’s main projects is the Sustainable Reinvestment Program, which involves buying and selling fair trade jewelry made by 20 Maasai women.

“We fair trade with the women, so we purchase jewelry at fair trade value – they tell us how much they want,” Harris said.
ASSIST then imports the jewelry, sells it and uses the profits to buy useful resources for the Kenyan communities, such as tanks that harness rainwater. The jewelry is sold at local fair trade shows and online to people around the world.

The money the women receive directly from ASSIST for their jewelry is also used to purchase sustainable resources, such as metal roofing and concrete slabs to house their new water tanks. Everything ASSIST buys is discussed with each person or community to better assess what they need and what will be most beneficial.

“Tell us what the community wants, and we’ll do the homework to try and figure out how to get it,” Harris said of the discussions. “And if what you want isn’t sustainable, we’ll help guide you and figure out [what is].

“We’re teaching them how to use some of the things that they are familiar with and educating them on how to save that money and how that money can go toward getting things like water tanks,” he added.

Once women have tanks and can effectively harness rainwater for individual and family consumption, ASSIST teaches them to use the water for gardening and small-scale farming, which provide sustenance and income.

The fair trade proceeds are also used in a “merry-go-round” micro-lending program, in which a group of Maasai women contribute a certain amount at the end of every month, and a different member receives the money.

Encouraging sustainability

Each facet of ASSIST’s programs works toward the goal of sustainability, which has become a buzzword in development circles. McDonald’s billboards claim that “sustainable fish” are used in its Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. Hyundai produced but then quickly retracted its controversial 2013 sustainability commercial in which a man tries to commit suicide by asphyxiating on the tailpipe exhaust of his ix35 Crossover but fails because the car is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell and emits only water. As with the Starbucks C.A.F.E. scenario, questions about true sustainability and what the phrase means can arise.

“Sustainability has become a very pop phrase,” Harris said. “For our organization, it’s not about influencing people to change, or to impact their culture so drastically that they become us. Sustainability to us is inspiring people to see how they themselves have the solution to their own problems. They just need assistance.”

Along with income generation and development, environmental sustainability is also a major focus of the fair trade movement.

“Sustainable would mean knowing that the roasters and the coffee farmers are being taken care of, their farms are being taken care of, their equipment is getting updated,” Troche said. “As we buy and sell coffee that’s more expensive, that means there’s more money for them to use as a farm.”

Ultimately, Harris said, fair trade is “all about survival. And survival is just trying to sustain yourself and your family, your culture and your environment.”


Photo at top: Everybody’s Coffee’s Peruvian “Coffee of the Month” in the shop’s signature ceramic mug. (Megan Kramer/Medill)