Reason magazine recently published an excellent article on the history of Fair Trade coffee and the complicated web that has evolved around it over the years: Reason: Absolution in Your Cup: The real meaning of Fair Trade coffee by Kerry Howley

Starting at the roots of the American Fair Trade coffee movement — at a 1990 SCAA conference at Oakland’s Claremont Hotel — the article then touches on Reagan-era politics in Central America, the evolving economic crisis of quality coffee production around the world, and the development of higher quality coffee brands. It concludes with the complicated state we have today: where Fair Trade coffee is more popular than ever, and yet where the Fair Trade movement is not exactly succeeding as it was originally intended.

Fair Trade is just one of a number of possible solutions to the problem of quality coffee growers not earning enough to support their farms while low-grade, mass producers depress prices on the overall market. By disintermediating the middle man, the hope was to pay a fair sustainable wage to growers and get the quality stuff directly into the hands of retailers and roasters who sought it out. Afterall, Americans were showing a greater and greater willingness to pay more per cup as growers’ earnings plummeted.

But Fair Trade certification has taken on a life of its own. It has been coopted by many of the corporations who were at first staunchly opposed to it or originally seen as the source of the problem (a little mermaid comes to mind, for one). It has introduced a conform-or-die impetus on other growers, creating new problems and inequities in place of the ones it originally tried to address. (Worst of all are those who have used Fair Trade certification as a public license to engage in other questionable practices.)

Required reading for anyone who thinks they have an obligation to social justice with their morning coffee. A lot of people now swear by and insist upon Fair Trade coffee with blind loyalty — as if not doing so would be an endorsement of Satan himself. Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that, and Fair Trade certification remains a compromised, flawed system.

As many in the industry describe it to me, “Fair Trade is at least better than nothing … maybe.”