You Might Be Surprised by the Best Ways to Support Coffee Growers

 When I was a child, my dad rose early in the morning, shuffled to the kitchen in well-worn slippers, and used the drip coffee pot to brew a cup of Folgers Classic Roast coffee. Those red canisters were a familiar part of my childhood. Even while the taste of coffee remained foreign to me!
Flash forward fifteen years. Long nights as a sleep-deprived college student running on caffeine and adrenaline transformed me. Into an avid coffee drinker. But my boutique blends from small city coffee shops are from a different coffee culture than that of my dad.
I savor the taste of a good cup of coffee. I adore the aroma. And I like the studies that say coffee drinkers may live longer. I love that coffee is a cultural currency. It’s an excuse to get to know a coworker and a reason to try out unfamiliar parts of your city.

Gourmet Coffee and Global Commodities

And I have a love/hate relationship with coffee as a major product in the global commodity market. Every morning, I grind a few tablespoons of an Ethiopian whole bean roast from a local Phoenix coffee shop. In doing, I join the 48% of Americans my age (that’s 18- to 24-year-old millennials) who drink coffee on a daily basis. But it’s not just that we are drinking coffee in mass quantity. A report on National Coffee Drinking Trends says that 59% of coffee consumed in the United States every day is “gourmet.” This marks a shift in the “coffee landscape” toward specialty coffee…which is also considerably more expensive.
And that Ethiopian coffee I enjoy on the daily is delicious. The demand for gourmet coffee has helped improve practices and increase quality along the value chain. Ethiopia is the biggest coffee exporter in Africa and coffee accounts for nearly a quarter of the country’s commodity exports. Yet many of the changes in the coffee market have not had the significant impacts on farmer productivity and income that they could.

I would hope that when I pay $15 or $20 for a bag of quality coffee, the farmers who grow those beans would also experience an increase in income.

Conscious consumers want environmental sustainability and better well-being for farmers alongside delicious coffee. That’s what I want too!

Certifications like FairTrade have stimulated conversation about where our coffee comes from. But coffee consumers like me still struggle to know if any of these “guarantees” mean anything. Certifications promise to meet standards related to fair labor, the environment, or production efforts.
But there are a growing number of people who say that certifications like these do not reduce poverty. Research shows that it’s difficult even for certifications that promise fair labor conditions to ensure that workers receive a living wage. Ensuring “ethical” coffee sourcing is tricky. There are hurdles of lack of market information, the price and demands of certification programs, and barriers of literacy or numeracy. And there are other issues too. Others critique sustainability certifications for placing a burden on coffee farmers. At the very least, most certifications do not extend standards that protect the rights and livelihoods of the poorest people. That includes people who might not even own land…the migrant laborers and tenant farmers.

So what if you’re a conscious consumer? Do you want the coffee you buy to support the livelihood of farmers?

Maybe you’re like me and love your bag of Ethiopian beans. Or perhaps you prefer the Guatemala dark roast.
I have two suggestions. Since one is a long-game strategy, I recommend a combination of both.

Let’s start with the long-game strategy.

Many low-income coffee farmers also have few savings. They may struggle with lack of access to credit or insurance. This means that a poor harvest or the shock of an unexpected natural disaster can be devastating to the livelihood of a family. But poverty research suggests that one of the key benefits of savings groups is that they offer a “consumption smoothing” function. That’s econ-speak to say that savings can help tide families over in a lean season.
Learning sustainable agriculture practices can lead to quality crops. And help meet the demands of coffee’s new consumer base! Farmers who learn sustainable practices and can implement techniques for higher quality beans.
Market knowledge, access, and lack of power also limit farmers’ ability to sell the crops they grow or to get a fair price. Connecting farmers with market information, growing leadership skills, and strengthening community networks can help with that problem too.
These are some of the inter-connected practices that community development organizations like Food for the Hungry (FH) implement. FH supports farmers through savings groups, agricultural techniques, and increased connectivity within social and economic systems. Supporting development work impacts the lives of the world’s poorest people.  78% of those people are engaged in agriculture. Some of those people are coffee farmers.

What should I do? I still need my morning brew!

Truly “ethical” coffee requires companies to integrate sustainability and transparency into every level of the supply chain. That comes out in the core approach companies take to business. And although they may take a bit more effort than simply looking for a brightly-colored label on your bag of grocery store coffee, here are some tips from one sustainability and justice-minded writer on how to approach ethical coffee consumption.
  1. Choose local coffee shops over large chains. You will be supporting small business and improving the likelihood that the shop owner has a direct relationship to roasteries and farms!
  2. Buy from small coffee roasteries. They may be involved with the supply chain and farming process. They might even be able to answer questions about the farms they buy their beans from!
  3. Research the supply chains of individual coffee shops or roasteries. You can even contact your favorite business to ask about where their beans come from and how much they know about the supply chain. Find one or two with evidence of good practices and frequent the shops whose values you trust!