Fair Trade The HARD Way (Not Really)

Mar 23rd, 2015 | By | Category: Columns

I have one, and only one, true love in this world. And that is coffee. I owe my entire book to coffee. I owe my sanity to coffee. I owe the safety of my co-workers and loved ones to coffee. And if coffee is ever banned in the U.S., I will consider it an act of war and will lead the revolution myself.

A few years ago, one of my favorite cafés made this bold announcement: they were switching to fair trade coffee. I really didn’t know what that meant. I understood the concept of fair trade and I’d heard more than enough rants for and against it. I figured that if the average American’s attention span is only capable of handling seven social issues at a time, then this just wasn’t one of my seven. I thought, what the hell – I expect my coffee to taste like coffee and I certainly won’t turn down the opportunity to promote fairness in the world.

The coffee was decent, but there was an odd aftertaste. At first, I couldn’t describe it. There was a metallic taste that lingered on my tongue. It wasn’t offensive, but it was not pleasant. I couldn’t concentrate on my work! I would sip, swallow and then rinse my mouth with water. But the aftertaste was still there. It felt like my mouth was coated in copper! And then, it occurred to me what I was actually tasting: hope. And apparently hope does not taste good. I guess coffee is best when it is bitter and brewed with human suffering and unfairness.

Of course, it did occur to me that the new filtration system was probably to blame – but whatever. Fair Trade Coffee had already been forever ruined for me! (Not really.)

A few weeks ago, at a restaurant, I was retelling this story with all my usual dramatic flair to some friends of mine and I accidentally called it Rough Trade Coffee. My friends stared at me as if I had begun to eat my mashed potatoes with my hands. This group of friends consists of very professional women, their husbands and the occasional feisty toddler. The ladies looked amused and mockingly scandalized. The men didn’t seem to know what rough trade meant and were very curious. Rough Trade Coffee. Once said, it was done.

“Don’t you mean Fair Trade?” one of them asked.

We held each other’s gaze for a moment out of time. “No,” I said. “Rough Trade coffee. It’s the new craze.”

For the next hour, the ladies and I proceeded to explain to their husbands the subtle differences.

Fair Trade Coffee is meant to enjoyed in lovely cafés with friends and without fear of persecution. But Rough Trade Coffee works best under the lone street light on a street corner.

Hipsters and college students drink Fair Trade Coffee as a social activity. Sketchy businessmen sip Rough Trade Coffee like it’s nobody’s business.

Fair Trade Coffee is very concerned with local markets. Rough Trade Coffee is very concerned with what’s in your wallet.

Now matter how much sugar you put in Rough Trade Coffee, you can’t make it sweet.

Fair Trade Coffee is a cultured world traveler with stories to share. Rough Trade Coffee has a troubled past and nothing left to lose.

Fair Trade wears Birkenstocks. Rough Trade wears combat boots.

One typically hears kind remarks and encouragement from Fair Trade. But Rough Trade Coffee will call you SIR while you run it through the grinder.


Defenestration-Jonathan HarperJonathan Harper is the author of the short story collection, Daydreamers (Lethe Press, March 2015). Visit him online at jonathan-harper.com.

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