Once a term that only hippies threw around, now every type of coffee connoisseur has heard of “fair trade” coffee. Some avoid it, simply from not knowing what it is, while others refuse to purchase any coffee that isn’t fair trade. Without the background information on what fair trade coffee is all about, it’s hard to make a decision on why it is such an important issue after all.

Here are five questions people commonly ask about fair trade coffee when deciding whether or not to support it exclusively or alongside their usual favorite brands of coffee.

1. What is fair trade about?

When a coffee farmer needs to sell his or her crops to make a profit, they often turn to “middlemen” because they have nobody else to sell them to. The middlemen then deal with the exporters or importers, keeping a cut of the profits, and because there is little competition, they can pay farmers very low rates for their crops.

Farmers are thus forced into a cycle of taking out loans to support their next crop and not repaying them all, trapping them in debt and reducing any chance of keeping their land, let alone expanding operations or finding another market.

The situation is similar for farmers of all sorts, whether in North America or in third world countries, but in the latter situations, people often find themselves without education, health care, or any other job prospects. After the debts are repaid (if they are), a salary of a thousand dollars to three or four, perhaps five thousand dollars a year is very common for a coffee farmer.

Fair trade eliminates the need for middlemen, as independent organizations trade directly with farmers and pay them a fair price for their coffee, much like the middlemen would have gotten for the goods had they been involved. This means the cost to the consumer is not much higher (if it’s any higher; sometimes it’s actually cheaper), and the benefit to the farmer enormous. It enables sustainable small-farm production, keeping farmers going from year to year when they otherwise might have drowned in debt.

2. Is it really fair?

There is some debate over whether or not fair trade coffee is still fair to all parties, but the general consensus is that it is more just than any other system currently and commonly used. The farmers don’t have a way to sell their products at retail price most of the time, nor do they have connections to roasters or online retail stores yet.

This is the next best option for the farmers, allowing them to get more money than they would have had they sold the coffee beans to a middleman. With the extra money, farmers can afford health care, education for their children, less use of pesticides and harmful fertilizers, less intensive crop growth to keep the land fertile every year, more environmentally friendly practices, and more.

3. What is and isn’t fair trade?

In most countries, there now exists some kind of regulation board for fair trade certification. A group of certification agencies called the Fair Trade Labeling Organization now controls the criteria set for fair trade coffee, among other products, and helps to ensure that only truly fair trade products are sold with this label.

Farmers are monitored by a group in every country who check conditions periodically and keep a list of the farmers and coops who are approved to sell fair trade products.

Generally, you can tell what products are actually fair trade by looking at the label for an officially-endorsed seal of approval or label of some kind. You may have to research a few different labels from your grocery store to find out which ones are the internationally-recognized Fair Trade branded ones, and which are simply adopting the label without following certification standards.

4. What are the indirect effects of fair trade coffee?

As hinted before, increased support and benefit for environmental issues is just one of the side effects of fair trade coffee. When farmers aren’t paid any more for being organic, environmentally friendly, or shade-friendly, they will have much less reason to take care of the environment. When dealing with fair trade organizations, however, there can be direct financial benefits to caring for the environment.

The production of coffee becomes more about quality than quantity, as the farmers are paid more for better quality coffee; this means that the land quality is preserved as they don’t have to use harsh pesticides or force the land to grow coffee year after year.

Other social benefits are linked with fair trade, as already discussed, so the issue isn’t just about economic problems with the regular coffee trade.

5. How can I support fair trade coffee?

The end consumers of the product have a lot of power when it comes to supporting fair trade coffee. By taking responsibility for the working conditions of the people who supply your food every day, you can build a happier, richer life for yourself while improving the lives of thousands of farm workers daily and securing them a solid future, education for their children, and more.

Switch to a fair trade brand of coffee, and if none are available, ask your grocery stores, coffee shops, and other places that sell coffee to stock a fair trade brand. You may need to leave a formal suggestion in a suggestion box, or you could talk to the product manager for that section. It looks good for the grocery store to be selling fair trade goods, and it enhances their own corporate ethics.

You can also take a greater responsibility, if you so choose. Some people build awareness in their own town by starting a campaign, handing out flyers and leaflets, and getting people talking about the shocking conditions most farmers live in. Dealing with independent cafes can give you a great “in” and a market of ready, listening consumers. Talk to your religious or social groups about the issue and you can spread awareness.

Fair trade coffee has a broad impact on the lives of thousands or even millions of workers every year. By supporting it, you can help continue a long-run effort to improve the lives of the people who bring you the delicious cup of coffee you enjoy every morning.