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University Looks Past the Labels When Buying Coffee

Heights Editor

Published: Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01


The way Boston College picks its beans to fill the 7,000 cups of coffee purchased weekly in its dining facilities is likely to draw a nod of approval from Juan Valdez himself.

The nod, however, would probably not stem from the sole fact that most of the coffee sold on campus is Fair Trade certified, but rather the thoughtfulness of the University's coffee purchasing decisions.

"I have never really been big on labels and purchasing just because they say ‘they are something,'" said Helen Wechsler, director of Dining Services. "Dining attempts to take a broader approach when selecting our suppliers. We want to have the whole picture of the companies with whom we do business. We don't select suppliers just because they sell Fair Trade products, just like we don't select suppliers solely on the grounds that they sell an organic or local product."

The phenomena of buying into a label has drawn criticism from some. In regards to coffee, Fair Trade has had its share of criticism for inefficiencies. A recent Financial Times editorial criticized Fair Trade for high certification fees charged to small farms and co-ops, causing some to enter into financing arrangements just to gain entry into the Fair Trade market or in extreme cases forgo certification altogether due to prohibitive costs – arguably compromising farmers' quality of life.

The piece drew a sharp rebuttal from Fair Trade Canada, stating that the arguments were "highly flawed," and defending not only the certification and just compensation assurance practices of Fair Trade, but noting that "Fair Trade is about much more than price."

But despite which side's facts are correct in the argument of social justice for coffee farmers, Dining Services takes additional precautions to ensure the cups of Joe served on campus reflect the University's commitment to social justice and quality food products.

While most of the coffee Dining Services sells is Fair Trade certified, its suppliers go beyond providing fair wages for coffee growers and pickers. Suppliers of many food products to BC, not just coffee, are vetted for quality and alignment with the University's mission throughout their supply chain.

"It is not always about Fair Trade or organic or local," Wechsler said. "It is about what meets the expectations of consumers, both in quality and the way it was produced. That said, I would never say Fair Trade isn't worth it."

BC's vetting of coffee suppliers for alignment with student desires and University mission has resulted in three suppliers for students' cups of Joe: Equal Exchange, Dean's Beans, and Peet's Coffee.

Each roaster has its own unique commitment to its product and the producer.

Equal Exchange and Dean's Beans sold on campus are both Fair Trade certified. Dean's Beans only purchase beans from small farmers and cooperatives and returns a portion of their profits from the communities from which the coffee beans they purchase originate in addition to their Fair Trade commitment. Equal Exchange also purchases its beans from organized small farmer cooperatives. Peet's Coffee offers Fair Trade blends, though not all products are Fair Trade certified. Some of the non-Fair Trade certified blends at BC, however, respond to other social justice issues.

Wechsler noted Peet's Uzuri African Blend features coffee from the producers of Rwanda Lake Kivu and Tanzania Peaberry. The blend is a result of the company's partnership with Technoserve and farmers who did not originally meet Peet's quality standards. A portion of the profits from the blend are returned to the region to improve farmer incomes and improve quality.

For Wechsler, the choice of one's coffee provider involves numerous factors for consideration, some of which go beyond just the Fair Trade certification.

"Labels are easy to buy into, but they can be deceiving," Wechsler said. "There is always more to learn. Purchasing decisions for conscious consumers are never simple. They are always filled with a number of considerations. The same applies to BC."

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