In 1981, Franz van der Hoff, a Dutch theologian and missionary, working with impoverished farmers in the Chiapas region of southern Mexico, came up with several ideas to improve the farmers income by marketing Chiapas coffee as a premium brand directly to roasters. He helped the farmers form a cooperative, and created the first fair-trade labeling initiative for the fictional label Max Havelaar.
The marketing efforts of the Max Havelaar brand enabled it to offer the farmers a fair price for their crop. They in turn agreed to implement various social and environmental practices to benefit their communities using the increased profits. The Chiapas coffee was imported and marketed in the Netherlands to retailers with great success. Soon the Max Havelaar model was replicated in several other markets around the world.
Using that model, the fair-trade certification system was instigated to ensure that the goods benefiting poor family farmers participating in the fair-trade initiative are differentiated by labeling for the consumer to recognize. Today, for millions of farmers around the world, fair-trade is the symbol of thriving communities, kids in school, low-cost loans, and a healthy environment.
Fair-trade farmers become stewards of the land. They grow their crops in harmony with nature and without the use of harmful chemicals. Today, over 85% of the fair-trade products currently sold in the US are certified organic, and some coffee farmers are even returning to shade-grown farming to further reduce harm to their environments.
As expected in the commercial trading of an organic commodity like coffee, the laws of supply and demand, product quality, and the vagaries of weather have a significant impact on how everyone in the supply chain -- from farmer to ultimately, the consumer -- behaves. Pressure on the price of coffee can come from any of those sources, affecting how much the farmer will ultimately earn.
It is sometimes difficult for the farmers to look past their immediate reality of providing day-to-day necessities for themselves and their families and keep on course with environmentally sound farming and processing practices. There is no single governing body that can maintain a unified disciplined course of action; the practice of fair-trade crosses all political boundaries and philosophies. We, as consumers, can have the greatest influence on maintaining fair-trade ideals by demanding products that meet the criteria of fair-trade. Your support of fair-trade is both a socially and environmentally responsible decision.