The Coffeenist Manifesto (4/4): Transparency

Quite a while ago I began a mini-series on a movement I, and I hope you too, would love to see develop in South Africa and beyond called Coffeenism. A movement of people wanting to see excellent quality coffee become the norm instead of the exception. Read the first one here and the second one here and the third one here.

Ethical coffee farming

Coffee being harvested by a plantation worker. Was he paid fairly? Was he mistreated? How can a coffee consumer find out?

In the news story quoted in my previous article, the following paragraph, in particular, caught my attention:

Two of the world’s biggest coffee companies, Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts, admit that beans from Brazilian plantations using slave labour may have ended up in their coffee because they do not know the names of all the plantations that supply them.

Furthermore, the article makes it clear that coffee produced using slave labour did actually end up in their coffee. However, what these coffee giants put forward as an excuse is, in fact, an admission of the inexcusable reality that they have little transparency in their supply chain.

Put off Propaganda, Take up Transparency

Transparency simply means that the coffee drinker should be able to request a clear line of sight, so to speak, all the way back to where the coffee beans in the cup he is drinking grew on a plant. In other words, he should be able to find out who grew it and where, who processed it, who imported it, etc., and what the relevant environmental and working conditions were.

In a recent article the head roaster at Origin Coffee, Mike McDonald, said, “Don’t drink coffee that shows no geographical distinction. If they can’t tell you where it’s from, don’t drink it.” Holes seem to be exposed again and again in big brands’ ethics, and the products are often cleverly labelled and marketed to disguise the dark holes. The Coffeeinist is not afraid to ask questions because naïve consumerism is simply not responsible anymore.

As transparent as a soviet nuclear bunker

Lamentably, transparency is currently quite rare with most coffees. The bulk of coffee is simply bought through commodities exchanges, and on the final product, little or no origin information is listed. Although samples of commodity coffee are usually inspected and graded, transparency is not a high priority. It is therefore not surprising that Nestle and Jacobs Douwe Egberts were unaware of which farms their coffee came from.

Even with most so-called single origin coffees, the most the business usually notes on the package is the country of origin. This is, of course, not adequate transparency since there is no way of evaluating the state of the specific growers or processors of coffee which is merely marked Brazilian or Ethiopian.

Bags of coffee

Do you know exactly where the coffee you buy comes from? The top right bag is from El Salvador, but from which farm?

Certified nuclear bunkers

Unfortunately, even certification schemes fall far short in this area.

Sadly, Fairtrade (FT from here) certification offers little to no additional transparency. And, because FT only works with cooperatives, an additional obscuring layer is actually maintained in the supply chain between the grower and the consumer. Besides this, there is not even adequate transparency with regards to its own systems and approach, for example, it never gets disclosed how much of the FT premium paid in a shop actually reaches the individual grower (see the previous article to see why it is probably little to nothing).

Sadly also, in an environment of little transparency, abuses can flourish. This is probably why abuses have indeed been exposed in the FT supply chain; for example, exploitative working conditions for coffee pickers and selling uncertified coffee as certified.

Rainforest Alliance (RFA from here) seemingly fares better, perhaps due to working directly with individual farmers. Also, I believe, it has a place in improving the impact of the coffee we buy on the environment and workers (more on its role in the section to follow). But, sad to say, it too falls short in the transparency department. For example, a product with only 30% certified content is still able to carry the RFA seal.

Let’s blow a hole in the bunker (and free the slaves inside too)

In response to the concerns above, as also mentioned in our last article, many coffee roasters have resorted to direct trade (DT from here). This is likely the best certification scheme currently available. With DT, the roastery has a representative travel to the actual coffee farms and processing facilities, to trade directly with coffee producers that are able to produce the quality and kind of coffee they need. Ideally, this journey should not be undertaken only once, but on a regular basis to keep the relationship with the grower strong, examine the produce, and make sure standards are being maintained.

Of course, this does not exclude farms complying with other standards or certifications. In fact, I think it an especially good idea to buy directly from farms that are also RFA certified. Moreover, it gives the buyer a chance to see for himself if the external certification standards are actually enforced, which, as we have seen, cannot necessarily be taken for granted.

But, while many would love to do so, owners of small to medium-sized roasters usually do not have the funds, time or skills to jet all over the world in search of the best, most ethical coffee.

Thankfully, specialist ethical coffee procurement companies like Falcon Coffees can help. They represent the small roaster to obtain coffee that is best for one’s conscience and taste buds. It is thanks to Falcon Coffees’ DT approach that Pause Coffee Roastery is able to provide extensive information about its coffee. For example, with the recent El Salvador micro-lot coffee, it is noted that Gilberto’s (the farmer) obsession with quality means he pays his 50 full-time employees well above the legal minimum wages, as well as the 75 seasonal workers, who are consistent from year to year.

Whatever approach to transparency and morality your favourite roastery adheres to, make sure the roast master knows exactly where the beans come from. If he’s too vague, find a new favourite roastery. And, perhaps we should all think twice about buying coffee from a supermarket shelf (for these reasons and other reasons mentioned in this article).

The Conclusion of Coffeenism? Or the Beginning?

So, if we want a coffee industry and culture we can be proud of and enjoy, we must encourage these four trends to become a reality.

We should endeavour to make speciality coffee of the above-mentioned standards the norm in South Africa and eventually worldwide,  for the good of all involved. Since, as we have seen, coffee economics is of such a nature that ever-increasing production of low quality coffee drives down prices to unsustainably low levels. This, in turn, leads to the destruction of the environment and workers’ lives, as desperate farmers try to increase yield and reduce costs to stay alive. And what for? So every person can have access to dozens of cups of mediocre coffee which gives them nothing but a caffeine rush (and maybe diabetes too from all the sugar needed to make it palatable)? Is it worth it?

Remember again how the French won’t stand for such mediocrity in their food industry! The coffee industry has much to learn from this.

Coffee can be beautiful when it is used as a tool to enrich people’s lives, from farm worker to consumer, as they savour a cup with their friends, and millions of others across the world.

But now that all is said, is Coffeenism real? Or is it just a theory to speculate about? Well, that is up to you, dear reader, to decide. If you are excited about Coffeenism, tell your friends, share the four trends, and get the conversation going. I do believe there are enough coffee enthusiasts to turn Coffeenism into a spectacular force for good in the coffee industry in South Africa and beyond. Or we can just avoid the issues and switch to Rooibos.

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