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Coffee Company Takes Fair Trade One Step Further

c. 2007 Religion News Service SACRAMENTO, Calif. _ For the 15 years Tom Angus worked for a company that negotiated the lowest possible prices for coffee beans, he would occasionally travel to Costa Rica, meet with farmers and hear about their desperate poverty and how they were losing their land. Angus says he was able […]

c. 2007 Religion News Service

SACRAMENTO, Calif. _ For the 15 years Tom Angus worked for a company that negotiated the lowest possible prices for coffee beans, he would occasionally travel to Costa Rica, meet with farmers and hear about their desperate poverty and how they were losing their land.

Angus says he was able to remain “mentally disconnected” from the poverty he saw. Yet on Sunday mornings, when his pastor at Pioneer Congregational Church here would talk about living out one’s faith, something would nag at him.

2003, Angus could no longer ignore that nagging feeling, and quit his job.

In May 2004, with his friend and fellow parishioner Betty “Jinxi” Allen, Angus started Beneficio Coffee, a Sacramento-based importing and roasting company. But rather than adopt the “Fair Trade” model that guarantees a fair price for coffee growers, the pair wanted to go further.

Most Fair Trade companies buy coffee from grower’s cooperatives for $1.26 a pound; Beneficio pays $1.39, plus a separate wage for coffee processors. After deducting its expenses, Beneficio channels 20 percent of its proceeds back to the farming communities, and sends an additional 10 percent to a charity of the buyer’s choice.

And because the company bills itself as “more than Fair Trade,” it has opted not to pay 10 cents a pound for a Fair Trade label from a certifying organization. Instead, it gives that money directly to the farmers.

“It makes you think when you’re picking up that cup what your choices are and how much of a blessing it is,” Angus said, “and how much work goes into that simple daily pleasure that is so cheap for us, but literally decides someone’s future.”

So far, Beneficio’s customers are mostly churches, but it also sells to schools, service organizations, small companies, and individuals over the Internet. The company is nearly at the break-even point, Allen and Angus say, and they are working on lining up investors.

Beneficio (which means “benefit for all” in Spanish) is part of a growing movement of for-profit companies for which social and environmental gains are as important as profits.

“Most people don’t want to have to check their values at the door when they walk into their office every day,” said Deborah Nelson, executive director of Social Venture Network, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that supports socially responsible businesses.

The Rev. Stephen Hamilton, a retired United Church of Christ pastor in Portland, Ore., who makes presentations about Beneficio at churches nationwide, says buying coffee from a socially responsible company lets him be faithful to God.

“From a mission point of view, from a theological, spiritual point of view, if there’s violence in the world then we seek to correct the violence,” he said. “What we’re doing by our choice of purchasing coffee is helping (the farmers) to be more self-reliant but not depend upon any other organization to be able to do that.”

Beneficio’s sense of mission doesn’t stop in the boardroom. Angus has led five mission trips to coffee-growing areas and has at least six more trips planned for 2007. There is no proselytizing. Instead, Angus and his customers do physical labor _ refurbishing a school, building a greenhouse, planting trees in the rain forest.

In 2004 and 2005, the company gave $16,900 to the farmers and to groups in the U.S. Some of that money bought uniforms and supplies for children in Costa Rica, allowing some to attend school for the first time, and a year’s worth of lunches for 55 orphans.

John Sage, co-founder and president of Pura Vida Coffee, a for-profit Fair Trade company in Seattle, said it’s plausible for small companies that have strong relationships with their customers and growers to shun the Fair Trade label.

“You can very reasonably say we know we do as good or a better job in terms of insuring economic opportunities and environmental stewardship and so we don’t need the mark,” he said.

Nicole Chettero, a spokeswoman for the Fair Trade-certifying group TransFair USA, said refraining from using the Fair Trade label on a large scale would cause the movement to fail; customers would have to take it on faith that the company paid a living wage for the coffee.

“Having an alternative that can be taken to scale at a mainstream level is what’s going to elevate the vast majority of impoverished farmers throughout the Third World out of the cycle of poverty,” she said.

So far, Beneficio has sold roughly 37,000 one-pound bags of its “heavenly blend” coffee for $6.25 each _ a miniscule slice of the nation’s $11 billion specialty coffee market.

Still, the company is making a big difference to the families on the ground, said Gilbert Ramirez, the international operations manager for CoopeAgri R.L., a Costa Rican coffee grower’s cooperative that processes Beneficio’s coffee.

“Beneficio is the only company that give(s) back money to the coffee farmer in this region,” he said in a telephone interview. “Beneficio Coffee open(ed) our eyes because it’s a new way to make a business.”

KRE/LFEND CORMAN

Editors: To obtain photos of Angus and Allen at a coffee roasting plant in Sacramento, go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.

See related story, RNS-FAIR-TRADE, transmitted March 13, 2007