The Ethics of Coffee: A Complicated Story

the ethics of coffee
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The Ethics of Coffee

This post on the ethics of coffee was written by Aileen Bowe, a writer and correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that provides legal aid to forcibly displaced persons.

The Journey of Coffee

As modern consumers, we know how difficult it has become to buy or consume in a fully ethically way. Elements of our existence (that now seem impossible to live without) are predicated on the suffering of someone else in the supply chain.

For example, even if we purchase local produce, keep our consumption habits to a minimum, and buy second-hand whenever possible, the majority of us own a smartphone, or some forms of technology that contain conflict minerals.

There are other goods that have a horrendous track record when it comes to the exploitation of people in unstable regions. One of these is coffee. While you can simply choose not to buy a smartphone, or find an ethically-made alternative, coffee is something that most people would struggle to live without, and finding ethical coffee is not as easy as it sounds.

Coffee grows at high altitudes in specific climate, temperature, and soil conditions. It is not yet possible to grow coffee plants at a local level, and therefore there is a dependency on coffee growers to produce and export coffee beans at a massive scale to fulfil market demands.

With over 2 billion cups of coffee consumed every day around the world, you could be mistaken for assuming that the coffee farmers at the frontline of this multibillion-dollar industry are paid fairly or even that that they have enough to survive.

Unfortunately, the opposite is true. The most recent data shows that there are approximately 25 million smallholder coffee farmers working on small-scale, often family-run farms that produce coffee. Around 12 million of these farmers meet the definition of living below the international poverty line, earning around $3.20 per day. 

My awareness of this issue has been peripheral for many years. We have all seen the branding materials on different company companies and in chain stores proclaiming that they are ‘ethical,’ ‘sustainable,’ ‘fairly traded’ or ‘directly traded.’ What I didn’t realize was that many of these slogans are just empty marketing phrases with no substance. In fact, the coffee I was drinking was unable to guarantee that the farmers who produced it were being treated fairly at all. 

We have all been exposed to the heartbreaking stories about the people who migrated from South America to the United States in search of a better life towards the end of 2019, in the much-sensationalized ‘caravan.’

What I didn’t realize was that the widescale abandonment of coffee farms was part of the reason that these people were compelled to leave their homeland and attempt to reach the United States. 

I soon learned that I actually knew next to nothing about the plight of coffee farmers in the 60 or so tropical countries where coffee is produced. 

Aside from the difficult and dangerous working conditions, many farm owners live in abject poverty in overcrowded conditions with poor sanitation. Many homes are not fit for human habitation and are little more than poorly constructed wooden sheds that do nothing to protect against the weather. In many cases, there is no access to clean drinking water and people are forced to drink from the same sources as animals. 

A 2016 report on the slavery-like working conditions in Brazilian coffee farms shows the extent of the horrifying conditions faced by many workers working on one of the world’s most valuable commodities. 

As we will see, this situation is not caused by poor farm management practices – the problems stem from serious systemic issues.

the ethics of coffee

Overview of the current situation for coffee farmers

For most people, the extent of their knowledge when it comes to coffee is the Fairtrade movement (covered in a previous post on why, despite its problems, Fairtrade makes a difference). 

The current situation for farmers is dire, and not enough people understand the background to the problem. In May 2019, coffee prices on the global commodities market (known as the C price) reached a 14-year low. As one of the largest commodities, this largely speculative market makes predictions about the future prices of coffee and traders make their wealth by buying and selling contracts.

The C price changes minute-by-minute, as with other commodities on the exchange. No matter the type of coffee (in terms of origin or quality), coffee is treated as one homogenous commodity. Ostensibly, it comes down to the issue of supply and demand. If coffee becomes scarce, the prices will increase. If there is plenty of coffee available, the price will decrease. 

However, the C price does not always reflect this reality. This is because trades can be made based on predicted future prices, so that if there are predictions of a poor future harvest, traders can buy future contracts and sell them for a profit in the future. Similarly, if there is prediction that coffee prices will increase because of conditions on the ground, traders can sell coffee and future contracts, resulting in a drop in the price of coffee.

Naturally, this means that the major winners in the coffee industry are hedge funds or speculators, and those who lose out (through no fault of their own) are the producers and coffee growers. 

It is not inexpensive to grow coffee and the process requires significant investment on the part of the farmer. From farming tools, worker payments, or harvesting equipment, there is an extremely thin margin for profits. A drop in coffee prices makes it more difficult for farmers to buy the tools they need for their farms to harvest the most profitable yield and support their families.

The exception to farmers who rely on the C price are those famers who have direct links with buyers and trade at a fixed price. 

In an interview with Perfect Daily Grind, a logistics and marketing specialist involved in ethical coffee trading, Karl Wienhold, states that “multi-year fixed price contracts” would take much of the risk out of the process and give farmers the opportunity to plan their livelihoods and reinvest back into their farms.

the ethics of coffee
Photo by Jason Villanueva on

What can consumers do in terms of movement building?

It can be really difficult to ensure that your coffee is truly ‘ethical’ and doesn’t come at the cost of another person’s hardship. In fact, it’s far more difficult than it should be. 

The USA’s National Coffee Association (NCAUSA) has some fantastic resources on topics germane to sustainability in the coffee industry. It should be noted that most of the resources are aimed at coffee companies rather than individual consumers, but this is a great place to start educating yourself on the issue.

Better consumer knowledge on the topic of coffee farming means that customers are more likely to make informed decisions about the coffee they purchase and the conversations they have with others. 

There are indications that there is potential for movement building on this topic. The NCAUSA published a report showing that coffee drinkers aged between 25-49 cite influences on the ethical sourcing of their coffee as part of their consumer choice.

In fact, the much-maligned millennial is the demographic who cares most deeply about the conditions of coffee producers. Additionally, approximately two-thirds of 19–24-year-old survey respondents stated that they make decisions about buying coffee based on ethical concerns, including labor practices and environmental sustainability. 

The trends that we see in the USA are also picking up steam in Europe. The Center for the Promotion of Imports (part of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs) highlights increased direct trade between small roasting companies and coffee producers as a growing industry trend. They argue this shows the “growing demand” in Europe for transparent and traceable systems in the global coffee supply chain.

This focus on directly supporting farmers is a small but growing element of the coffee market and it is one of the best ways that consumers can contribute to more of these practices. 

Another action that people can take is having conversations with others about the challenges faced by farmers and coffee producers. Open dialogue and honest discussions are fundamental. While it is unlikely that speaking to your friends will have any impact on the C price or global commodity markets, it might help nudge them into buying more ethically next time they feel caffeine calling. 

Another idea to make the issue more tangible to people is to compare cheap coffee with fast fashion. We know that cheap fashion comes at an unacceptable human and environmental cost, and the same is true for coffee. By drawing comparisons, we can make the issue more understandable and encourage better choices. 

After all, it’s only through small, repeated actions that we can effect change on an individual level. Even if we ‘do’ sustainability imperfectly, we’re still making a difference. 

Links and resources to keep learning and interrogating 

This is a topic that few people could not be moved by, when learning about the conditions of farmers in some of the world’s most disadvantaged regions. It becomes more difficult to enjoy a cup of coffee when the provenance of the cup becomes clear. 

Even if we choose to ignore the plight of farm workers, we can’t ignore the people coming to the United States in search of a better life. Many of these people have come from coffee-growing countries such as Guatemala or Honduras. Internal political instability and widespread violence has meant that when crops are no longer profitable (or worse, cause debt), people have no choice but to try emigrate to the United States, many with the hopes of achieving US citizenship. It should not be the case that coffee growers have no other option but to leave their countries and their homes. 

Committing to interrogating our habits is a lifelong practice that takes a lot to maintain. Some of the below practices should help you make better choices:

  • Patronize local independent coffee shops over the bigger chain brands. If they are committed to ethical sourcing practices, amplify them over your social media accounts
  • If you prepare your coffee at home, research the best coffee roasteries and order from these companies
  • Don’t be afraid to engage in conversations with companies about their coffee sources. If enough customers contact businesses with concerns about their supply chain, they will take notice
  • Make sure you know what the different labels mean. ‘Fairtrade,’ ‘ethical,’ and ‘direct trade’ can be used in different ways by different companies, so do more than just glancing at a label when making a purchasing decision

Below are some useful links to help you stay informed about what you can do:

Until we have true global equality, the conveniences of the well-off will come at the expense of the more marginalized. But until this time, let’s remain aware of our privilege and work for increased equity.

Aileen Bowe is a writer and correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that provides legal aid to forcibly displaced persons.

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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