Every day, I wake up around 6:30 a.m. and pour myself a cup of coffee. The warm and caffeinated goodness reverberates in my bloodstream and motivates me to face another day.
I’ve had this habit for the past 10 years. I love my coffee, much like a mass majority of Americans who have the same habit in the morning. Some people can’t go a day without drinking coffee; I am one of those people. There is, of course, one little problem that most manufacturers, stores and coffeehouses won’t tell you: it comes from slaves.
Coffee’s history is steeped in slavery. In the 1700s, the battle for the bean was in full force, with nations such as France, Portugal and Holland stealing beans from one another to make their own coffee plantations. These plantations were located in Haiti, Jamaica, Brazil, Guyana and other places such as the East Indies. Slave labor was common practice and harvesting coffee no easy task.
To harvest coffee, you first have to understand where it comes from. Coffee is actually a fruit that grows on a shrub which grows to be about five to six feet tall. The small berries turn red in color and are referred to as “coffee cherries.” Once ripened, these cherries are picked several times in a season, usually by hand. It takes three to five years for one coffee shrub to produce the coveted cherries.
After the cherries are picked, they are sorted by hand with sifters in a process called winnowing. Then, the skins are painstakingly removed by a drying process that can take up to four weeks to complete.
Producing coffee is a very time-consuming activity. If the average worker were paid American minimum wage, a single cup of coffee would cost $100, and a pound of coffee would cost $4000. Companies such as Maxwell House, Folgers and Nestle buy the cheap beans, grind them up, stick them in a plastic container, and sell it to you for $8. Workers on coffee plantations are generally paid $2 to $3 a day, if they are paid at all.
The coffee industry’s darkest secret is its use of child labor. The skyrocketing popularity of coffee propelled the slave trade. Your daily latte is made on the backs of children as young as nine years old, taken from their families and sold to plantation owners on Africa’s Ivory Coast.
Once there, these children work 12 hour days or longer, wielding dangerous machetes, encountering poisonous snakes and lifting bags of coffee beans weighing upwards of 100 pounds. There are an estimated 8.4 million child slaves in the world and approximately two million make your morning cup of Joe.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel; the fair trade option is available to those who choose not to support slavery. The Fair Trading Act organizes coffee growers into co-ops that vow to give workers fair pay, free from exploitive behavior and abuse.
Finding fair trade coffee, however, can be both easy and hard. Starbucks coffee readily admits to using fair trade beans. The problem, however, is that only 83 percent of their beans come from fair trade growers. It may seem like a decent number, but think of it this way: Starbucks supports slavery 17 perent of the time. Biggby also has fair trade options available. Both their Rwanda and French roast coffees are 100 percent fair trade. Unfortunately, like most major chains, their espresso mix (used for those yummy lattes and mixed drinks) uses a low percentage of fair trade beans. Dunkin Donuts is a pioneer of the coffee industry using 100 percent fair trade coffee across the board.
When I learned about this information, I made a vow not to buy coffee that wasn’t Fairtrade Certified. It was then I found the true extent of the slave industry in the world. The Fair Trade Act also extends to one of our other favorite foods: chocolate. More on that next week.
For a full list of Fair Trade Certified products and coffee brands, visit fairtradeusa.org.