Ethical coffee: Ignoring the history, missing the story
(aka: the recent learnings of a self-confessed coffee snob)
Visiting the London coffee festival was like wonderland. Samples and stalls as far as the eye could see.
Only after days of reflection, reflecting on the festival did I realise something was missing. In all of the brochures there was some explanation of the brand’s ethical credentials: fair trade certifications of various kinds, the story of their direct trade with small scale farmers, collaboration, communities of coffee…
Fine, so it’s now a given that everyone from small roasters to corporate giants billboard their sustainable credentials. This is undoubtedly a phenomenal development for the fair trade movement and the world in general. The discovery is that it’s easy being green after all!
But wait - there’s a gap
Where’s the first half of the story? Why is fair or direct trade important? Because it is? What’s the alternative? In other words: where have we come from? Where are we now? And how did we get there?
Charities are guilty of this too. So focused on maintaining fundraising streams, they often diagnose the problem till we all have compassion fatigue. They rarely recognise either historical or recent progress - hey we have been doing alright! - condemning their mission to feel like a Sisyphean task that offers little hope of change.
Journey and hope
Contrived as it might sound, sometimes the journey matters more than the destination. Whether you are selling coffee, or hope, it is vital that both companies and customers understand why they are doing what they are doing with regard to sustainability. After all it is a great story to tell.
Vendors can lay claim to being a part of a movement that has achieved astounding progressive change and made money for people throughout their supply chain in the process. Maybe they can sell a little hope with that coffee…
The result of not knowing and telling this story is simple: greenwashing. Sustainability as easy PR minimised to glossy pictures of smiling coffee farmers. A value-adding subset of the brand, not a value at its core.
Maybe it’s because coffee shops have forgotten their role as agents of historical change. From the enlightenment to the abolition of slavery coffee shops were hubs of intellectual organising and activity.
Maybe it’s because they don’t want to be the Chamberlain of hot caffeinated drinks proclaiming peace in our time, lest abuses in their supply chain are discovered (make sure they don’t happen?!).
Maybe it’s because they don’t notice, because the greatest changes often happen gradually, imperfectly and without knowing.
In the end though not looking back means not knowing where you are now, and ultimately not knowing where you are going.