You’ve seen it…on grocery store shelves, in cafe windows, printed on your to-go cup sleeve: “Fair Trade” coffee, “Better Than Fair Trade” coffee, “Sustainable” coffee. All words to assure consumers that they are doing the right thing when buying their beans.
Coffee goes under the microscope of ethical business practice often—possibly more often than any other food product in the US (no data on this, just a feeling). Across various markets and subcultures the expectation of Fair Trade coffee is ubiquitous in a way that, say, Fair Trade bananas and Fair Trade electronics are not. Everyone wants at least a vague sense that their coffee is ethical.
At times I’m tempted be a little bit sour about this. In the quality coffee business, it’s perfectly normal for a consumer to walk into a cafe and ask “Hey, did you pay this farmer enough? Did you or someone you know go visit him? Did you help build a school on his property for the children of the farm workers?” Now, take a step back and imagine this in the quality beer business. You walk into a bar, ask for an IPA, and, as the bartender is moving to pour it, you ask “Hey, did you help build a school for the children of the hop farmers?” It doesn’t happen. Why should coffee—a lower margin, lower cost (per serving) product—be held to such a high standard?
When I feel like this, I remember a comment a wise coffee person (Peter Giuliano if you’re curious) once made—coffee has a history of exploitation. As a colonial cash crop, the coffee trade led to the enslavement (outright or in practice) of many people around the world. With few exceptions, the establishment of coffee agriculture in a country meant that some or many people would be exploited to produce it. It is this exploitation that we are chipping away at when we pay attention to the ethics of our coffee. Though the world has changed in the past 200 years, inequality and corruption remain. Seasonal coffee pickers are underpaid and powerless to change it. Farmers are taken advantage of by various middle-men. Coffee prices set by commodity markets in NY and London determine the success or failure of farms, processors, and exporters.
At Refuge Coffee Co. we’re committed to serving people in vulnerable places. That is the impetus behind our job training program, and our commitment does not stop with the Clarkston refugee community. We’re putting our money where our mouth is and buying coffee that we know is sustainable all the way back to origin. We’re voting with our dollars for change in the coffee industry. When you enjoy a cup of Refuge coffee, you can know that you’re not only supporting us as we work in Clarkston—you’re supporting an awesome roaster (Safehouse!), multiple great importers/exporters (Thrive, Cafe Imports, Ninety Plus), and hundreds of coffee professionals at origin who are getting paid fairly for farming, picking, and processing excellent coffee.
In the end, that’s just called good business, but when the “business” has the potential to exploit millions of people around the world, it’s worth asking about.
And no, we’re not building any schools on coffee farms at the current time.
By Caleb Goodrum, Director of Operations for Refuge Coffee Co.