As I'm writing this, I'm settled at a table in the lofty Mercury Cafe, sipping a cup of Intelligentsia coffee. I've always been a big fan of Intelligentsia's deep-dark, toasty flavor and its kicky caffeine punch. Now I can add another, more important plus to the list: The Chicago roaster takes pride in paying its growers a living wage for its specialty beans.
Since October is Fair Trade Month, I decided to educate myself on the issue. My first action was to check out the screening of "Black Gold" at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Self-awareness, however hard to swallow, is a big first step toward sustainability, and "Black Gold" dishes out a full cup of the bitter stuff. The documentary tracks the West's multi-billion-dollar flow of coffee beans back to one of its origins, Ethiopian farms where growers can barely afford food for their families.
Shuffling out of the dark theater, I was inspired to snap out of the paralyzing haze of bourgeois guilt and start doing some research: What can a girl of modest means in Chicago do to become a more conscious shopper?
First thing is to know a few important FAQs. Fair trade, according to the Fair Trade Federation, ensures that the laborers who produce products are paid at least their country's minimum wage. Since minimum wage is often not enough to cover basic needs, a "living wage" is paid whenever possible, ensuring that the laborer can purchase food, clothing, shelter, education and health care for his or her family.
Better still, fair trade is usually environmentally progressive, since fair trade farmers often use sustainable organic methods rather than expensive industrial chemicals, and also because preservation of the natural environment is often a big part of the community-improvement goal of fair trade producer groups.
Fortunately, all of this doesn't mean that fair trade products are more expensive than their non-fair-trade counterparts. Fair trade exporters generally save profits for producers by eliminating middlemen, not charging consumers more. With that kind of logic, there's really no good reason not to buy products that have been fairly purchased, especially if I was going to buy them anyway. On this issue, wallets can speak louder than words.
In the U.S., where fair trade products are primarily artisan crafts, few products are posed to make a large-scale impact like coffee. And we can proudly say that Chicago is home to a noteworthy handful of wage-responsible roasters. Once I started looking around, I found that many of my favorite spots for a pick-me-up were already ahead of the fair trade game. And the managers of those that aren't have already started getting an earful of my (polite) requests that they rethink their menu.
For more info and a chance to get involved, check out Chicago Fair Trade online at www.chicagofairtrade.org.
Grab a cup of fair Joe!
Intelligentsia Roasting Works' blends labeled Direct Trade are purchased from growers at prices that are at least 25 percent higher than the fair trade rate per pound. The company aims to bring all of its blends up to Direct Trade status, but currently, it's best to ask your barista if the blend you're drinking is up to snuff. In addition to Loop and Lakeview shops, its blends are served at cafes and restaurants around town.
Casteel Coffee Co., run by a husband-and-wife team, produces a large selection of fair trade options for sale to both individuals and companies. They run their own Evanston store, but also supply favorite local haunts like the Unicorn Cafe and New Day Cafe.
Metropolis Coffee Co. serves coffee that isn't just fair trade—it's also bird-friendly. In addition to its Edgewater storefront, Metropolis supplies blends to North Side shops like Cafe du Monde, Kim's Kitchen, Charmers Cafe and Flourish Bakery Cafe.
Coffee & Tea Exchange's Lakeview shop is always packed with shoppers stocking up on beans, roasted fresh in the company's West Loop warehouse. The company offers six yummy blends that are both fair trade and organic.
Freedom Coffee Roasters, located on the Northwest side, doesn't have a shop, but sells batches roasted-to-order for both retail and wholesale. Its organic fair trade blends can also be purchased throughout the city at Whole Foods stores.