In my 12 years as a coffee roaster I have learned a lot, not just about coffee but also about people, relationships and business. As I have developed as a coffee professional I can look back and see how easily influenced I was, and the stupid things I believed in order to validate my cause. The one thing that annoys me, and that I would go back and change, is the publics’ view of ethically traded coffee.
I’d naively like to think that everyone would buy more ethically if given the choice, but how hard is it to know what is ethical when your trusted sources of information are really just trying to market themselves to you.
What is very trendy at the moment, is to market the name of the farmer, and his exact GPS coordinates, and his dogs’ name, and how many trees he has at a particular altitude. Traceability is great, don’t get me wrong, but hardly an indicator on ethics.
Direct trade, the golden phrase, but what exactly does it mean. To the average consumer it means that the roaster buys coffee directly from the farmer. Brilliant, what could be more ethical than that? However, it isn’t this simple. Most farmers need a mill to finish the process of turning a cherry into a green bean. The equipment involved with this is huge, and if a farmer has this on site, than they are making a very decent living already. On top of this there will need to be an exporter, and for a small or medium sized roaster, an importer. Already this is a lot of hands. Now keep in mind that there can also be co-op buyers, green bean consolidators, and overseas based companies that all need a share. And you can see how very quickly, just because a roaster is paying more than their competitor for green beans, doesn’t mean the farmer is being paid better.
Another subject I’d like to address is the commodity market, a word most roasters cringe about when talking to consumers. In an ideal world, we would all buy coffee based on what we think it’s worth, and sometimes we do, but a large number of producers do not have the trust to let go of this terrible way of trading (more on this in a future story). Just because a coffee is Specialty grade, doesn’t mean that it is immune to the market.
So next the time you buy coffee ask yourself, how genuine is the link from roaster to grower?
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