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Grinding the Numbers on Fair-Trade Coffee

My ethics make me an ideal candidate to be a big fan of fair-trade products.

But, truth be told, I could use a little more fair and a little more trade brewed into my coffee, sweetened with a real sense that I'm getting my money's worth of beans.

I'm as much a capitalist as anyone, but I believe the first rule of responsible capitalism is do no harm. When it won't completely bust the budget, I shop with an eye on the big picture.

I avoid antibacterial cleaners because I want no part in creating a microscopic army of drug-resistant diseases . I avoid Wal-Mart (WMT - Get Report) because despite its recent attempts to green up , I suspect those "everyday low prices" still aren't all that good for suppliers, workers, the environment or even Wal-Mart shoppers. When I visit developing countries, I take to heart those Lonely Planet admonitions to spend my tourist dollars in ways that help and don't undermine local residents.

The idea behind fair-trade programs is that they enable small farmers to sell their coffee beans, tea leaves, cacao pods, sugar cane and bananas directly to exporters, thereby pocketing a larger portion of the export price than they would if they were left on their own and compelled to use shady middlemen to get their goods to market.





With coffee , for example, the fair-trade groups help the farmers organize into co-ops so that they can use their collective muscle to invest in equipment to clean, sort and roast beans, provide transport to market and train farmers in sustainable farming and other techniques -- all with an eye on raising the prices the members can fetch.

The co-ops also extend credit so farmers can time the sale of their beans for optimum profit. This helps people in developing regions better compete in the marketplace, and also encourages them to be more responsible to the environment. I can get behind that.

But fair trade doesn't stop there.

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