Fair-traded coffees are certified to have been produced by democratically run cooperatives whose members have been guaranteed a "fair" price for their coffees based on an internationally determined formula. Some of the extra money paid by coffee lovers for Fair-Trade coffees is used to promote the Fair-Trade principle in consuming countries, but most of the premium reaches the farmers directly. Almost all Fair-Trade coffees are also certified organically grown and many are shade-grown. Therefore, buying a Fair-Trade coffee probably is the concerned coffee drinker’s most impeccably progressive choice.
Some coffee professionals criticize the fair-trade movement for valuing social and environmental issues more than coffee quality. They make the argument that, because growers are paid a guaranteed price for their fair traded coffees, the growers will not pay attentive to quality, and will be tempted to foist off whatever shoddy quality they wish on buyers.
Currently, such criticism appears to be baseless. My rather extensive cuppings of fair trade coffees suggest that they tend to be no better nor no worse in quality and character than a comparable range of conventionally traded coffees. Green coffee buyers always have the option of refusing to buy specific lots of fair-trade coffees, and, to the degree that market pressures really do promote quality (an arguable assumption in itself), this mild pressure appears more than sufficient to focus fair-trade farmers on the job at hand.
It is true that a coffee lover who buys only fair-traded coffees may face limitations in choice. Most fair-traded coffees are produced in Central and South America, with only a handful of fair-trade options from the great origins of East Africa and the Pacific. But given the success of the fair trade movement, I expect to see more variety in coming years.