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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

How to buy coffee

If you're a consumer in the market for 'specialty' coffee (i.e. anything above Folger's grade) then there are a myriad of options, brands, and considerations designed to address concerns ranging from taste, to environmental impact, and social justice.

Fair Trade is the most well-known label, designed to protect the price points of workers on small coffee farms. Although it guarantees a floor price for the coffee and other protections for the workers, even experts who support Fair Trade, such as Mark Pendergrast, are quick to point out its limitations.

Fair Trade can only offer protections to a small percentage of the workers in the coffee trade since large and medium farms aren't eligible, and quality is left to its purchasers to determine.

Certified organic coffee may seem likely to benefit the health of coffee consumers, but its real impact lies elsewhere. In a speaking engagment at the University of Washington, Pendergrast noted that the pesticides affect the cherry hulls, and don't penetrate to the bean itself. Drinking organic coffee, then, does not necessarily offer a health benefit over traditional methods, but it does benefit the workers who harvest the cherries by hand, and are exposed to the poisons.

Beyond fair trade and organic, there is direct trade, which has no certification, and several bird friendly/shade grown certifications which have numerous variants.

With careful research, you may learn about the organizations and certifications involved for these different brands and labels, or discover a roaster which participates in Direct Trade practices which are agreeable with your purchasing habits.

Yet, for whichever stories come printed on the label or distributed in information on certification practices, however, they simply remain stories. The truth about the chain from the farm to the cup often remains unknowable opaque, and is spun by marketing professionals looking to cash in on the conscientious consumer of specialty roasts.

For a glimpse of what could be the reality of direct trade coffee, for example, look no further than this review of Zoka coffee roasters (my emphasis):

I worked for Zoka for a little over a year and in that time I saw: sexual harassment (from the head of the company which made the girl move out of town), failure to pay coffee farmers, threats from various upper management to the employees (I can't tell you how many times I heard the head of the company say "You have to like me, I'm your boss!", firing people for calling in sick and finally their finniest and latest: embezzlement of employees tips to make up for the money that was lost during a break in. The owner does not care about anything but himself and his money which he has no idea how to manage.

Although I'd like to believe that purchasing specialty coffee with certifications from international organizations is making the world a better place, clearly there is still a certain amount faith involved and the actual results are difficult to know.

My recommendation to the truly conscientious consumer: buy organic Hawaiian coffee. It may be expensive, but:

  • You are buying American products, backed by American labor laws.

  • It is delicious coffee.

  • The farmers are not exposed to harmful pesticides, and neither is the environment.

  • You can visit the farm yourself, or see pictures from tourists. I highly recommend visiting, though!

Otherwise, prepare to invest plenty of time reading literature about different biodiversity certifications or getting to know your local importer better than they may be comfortable with.

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