To the more than 25 million farmers whose livelihoods depend on fluctuating coffee prices, the fair-trade coffee movement can offer them a few extra cents per pound of harvested beans and ensure their right to organize. In response to student demand, cafeterias will begin serving fair-trade coffee next week. This encouraging University response shows that the administration is willing to respect the will of student activists and to take pre-emptive action to promote companies that uphold high labor standards.

Sarah Royce

Although coffee prices in U.S. grocery stores fell by 15 percent between 1999 and 2003, green coffee prices halved, according to TransFair USA. Receiving only a fraction of the wholesale price of coffee, small coffee farmers are often unable to cover their own costs. Fair-trade coffee emerged as a solution to protect these farmers by offering importers an incentive to pay a more reasonable price for beans and to buy from farms that work to protect the environment and workers’ rights.

The University will now join more than 300 other colleges by buying fair-trade coffee for its dining halls. Fair-trade distributors contrast deeply from the businesses with which universities often make contracts – those that often exploit workers to drive down selling prices. By buying fair-trade coffee, the University is taking an active role in improving society.

The switch to fair-trade coffee comes only a month after the University cut its contract with the Coca-Cola Company, a sign that student activists are gaining strength on campus and that the University is taking seriously the set of values implied by its Vendor Code of Conduct. No doubt, the University will carry this trend forward in considering the campaign Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality launched recently to ensure apparel bearing the University’s logo is made in factories that respect workers’ rights.

The University took a proactive role in switching to fair-trade coffee before the situation evolved into a large-scale struggle with student activists. By respecting the will of students, University officials have shown they are concerned with the effects of their contracts and also with student concerns. When students pay such high prices for meal plans and tuition, their voices should be heard in decision-making processes. The University has a unique opportunity to use its influence and voice to make a statement about honest businesses and their role in society. Student activism was directly responsible for both the suspension of the Coke contract and switch to fair-trade coffee, and students must use this momentum to continue working for just causes in society.

Fair-trade coffee exchanges a small price increase for a commitment to coffee farmers’ rights, and the administration’s response to fair-trade proponents has been impressive. One of the strongest tools student activists have at their disposal is the University. The voice any individual student speaking from the conviction of her conscience may seem quiet. When such students collaborate and use the University as a megaphone, however, their collective voice can call far more loudly for change.

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