Writing Commentary

 Fair Trade: Is Your Latte Licensed?

America’s coffee obsession: is it a harmless habit or misguided adoration? We drink a lot of the brown stuff here.   More than half of adults drink coffee and the amount we suck down averages out to about three and a half cups per person per day.   That’s a lot of Colombian, Juan Valdez!  Even during the latest recession (’08 and ’09) we continued sipping steadily, when discretionary spending on so many other items tanked;  in fact we  got snobbier about our drinks—demanding premium varieties.  Our only concession to our shrinking bank accounts has been to drink more of the delightful infusion at home instead of at a coffee house.    Personally, I get a little misty to think of all the Mr. Coffees, French presses, Gevalias, gold plated filters, Starbucks Gift Cards and travel mugs that have wandered in and out of my kitchen. You see, coffee is my addiction, too.

I’m not sure how we the people got hooked so thoroughly.  I never paid much attention until recently. Seems to me, back in the 60’s when I was a child, anyone under thirty hated the stuff. Now it’s the status drink of the 12-year-olds in my classroom right on up to their grandmothers.  Your local barista tosses up venti fraps or Nicaraguan drip to both the glitterati and the working man. Parked outside Seattle’s Best you might see a half-ton Chevy next to a Mercedes convertible.  (More likely you’ll find some $1000 bicycles and Lycra-clad yuppies.  Been there, seen that.)   It’s funny how we have a Starbucks on every corner, a Krups on every counter, and a cup holder in every car’s console.   I’m just sayin.’  Americans love their brew.

I have a little pet fantasy that so many of us imbibing this elixir of life will be the great unifying ritual of the decade.  Hey, it could happen!   From school teacher to politician, we generally love coffee as much as our baseball and our apple pie (although Barack Obama himself doesn’t drink the stuff).    Sadly, it’s more likely we’ll do what humans always do and those back-room deals in D.C. will fall apart when one side of the negotiating table declares (gasp) they only drink decaf!   I’m not willing to take up that argument.   Some churches have, believe it or not. Some I’ve attended will only offer decaf because it is not a stimulant.  Look out—that caffeine might make you rob a bank or cheat on your wife!  In the end, the churches without the witches brew merely had fewer of us coffee snobs hanging about.  We would head down the street for a little foam with our fellowship.  A risky move, to be sure, leaving church to worship, but none of us are cooking in the Big Eternal Roaster just yet. 

Really, though, coffee is only a drink.  A non-narcotic, legal libation. Do we need to take a non-alcoholic beverage so seriously?  Is our dependence upon coffee an issue?  Some would say it’s purely an economic luxury that perhaps causes some physiological problems, while an equal number might tout its health benefits and hence, call it a bargain.   (Luxury? Um, no, it’s a critical necessity if you ask me.)  I’m not one to moralize about what people eat or drink or spend, anyway, so don’t worry.  If I can’t leave the house without some good strong joe and I weigh twice what your average supermodel does, do you think I would judge?    The experts can’t seem to agree with each other about the health benefits or risks of the bean juice, so I wouldn’t dare make any pronouncements on that front.

However, I’ve been wondering about the business of coffee and the money in mochas ever since I read an historical novel that likened it to the coca industry.  The story involved smuggling, cartels, debauchery, destitute farmers, and so forth.   I considered what the financial impact of our increased American consumption truly is on the rest of the world, minus political correctness or hyperbole.  So I carried myself down to my java joint and spread out my research on a table to find out. While I was there it seemed like a supremely good time to sip a cup of Sumatra….

Here’s the backstory.  Coffee’s been around America a long time.  Did you know that even the Boston Tea Party was planned in a coffee house? The Tontine Coffee House of New York in the late 1700’s was the New York Stock Exchange; so much business was conducted there.  Coffee houses, diners, and the like continued to flourish for the next 200 years.   A real espresso café renaissance exploded in Seattle back in the 1970’s and has been gaining momentum to this day.    Turns out the coffee trade is in fact, no joke. It’s the largest commodity market in the world besides the oil market--about $60 billion worth a year.    (How’d that happen to a drink about which specialty tasters—cuppers--use such unlikely terms as rancid, rubbery, ashy, astringent, and animal-like?) 

Yes, coffee is big business and no one much minds that. I don’t mind if someone is making money by bringing the best demitasse to my local restaurants, shops and supermarkets.  It’s easy, it’s good, and I enjoy it.  It’s a splurge for me.   Yet here’s the rub. My hackles rise when I hear statistics like “only 10% of the coffee revenue ever reaches the coffee farmer” or “nearly 25 million farmers worldwide depend on growing coffee for their economic livelihood.”  Just this sort of news about coffee prices, insolvent growers, unsustainability, and so on bounced around from the mid-80’s through the early 2000’s. It apparently caused a sensation among the coffee crowd (and still does so today) but I wasn’t paying attention.  I’m not a farmer but I am not rich either. I like to think I care for the underdog in a situation.  I finally smelled a rat when I discovered that during some time periods in the past ten years my per pound coffee price had gone up 30-40% while at the same time growers’ per pound returns were down 40%—at one point sinking to the lowest price in 100 years.  So who’s making all the money?  Where’s it all going? 

The coffee/money controversy probably didn’t even cross the average American’s consciousness until around 2000 when Starbucks made a big announcement: they endorsed a movement called Fair Trade Licensing and started carrying Fair Trade coffees.  Being more consumed with consumption than production or producers, I didn’t know anything about that phrase: Fair Trade.   I don’t really need to or want to understand the entire import, export, processing, sustainability, and profit structures around growing the beans and getting them to my market.  But I don’t want to worry that my small frivolous pleasure in being a coffee nut happens at the expense of a poor farmer in Guatemala.  I’m guessing you and the rest of America’s coffee groupies feel the same.  What I’ve learned is that there is a way to support both farmers and our own espresso habit.

Here’s what Fair Trade actually means.  If a product is certified fair-trade, the farmers must belong to democratically run cooperatives, which are independently inspected, and which use sustainable agriculture. The Fair Trade farmers get a guaranteed of a living wage in return.  Fair Trade practices also eliminate the middle man between the coffee importer and the coffee producer.   I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthing beans, Miss Scarlett, but this makes sense to me.  Turns out the Netherlanders started the movement for licensing in 1988 but the concept didn’t catch on right away.  It’s been building energy since then, though.   Between 1999 and , 13 million pounds of fair trade coffee has been imported into the United States, yielding an estimated $10 million in additional revenue for the farmers growing fair trade coffee.   Last year, TransFair reports it certified more than 100 million pounds of coffee, which was an increase of more than 20 million pounds compared with 2008.

So Fair Trade coffee farmers should be feeling an impact.  But it turns out only about 2% of the world’s coffee supply is Fair Trade.   Maybe Americans and other nationalities haven’t thrown their entire weight behind the movement. It’s not a perfect solution and it doesn’t address any sustainability problems. However, t6o the developing country whose main export is coffee, every pound matters, just like every proverbial starfish tossed to the sea.  I’m of a mind that doing my small part by purchasing Fair Trade licensed beans or drinks might help one farmer feed his kids and stay in business.  Agree with me? Let’s do something about it today. Meet me at Pikes Perk later and we’ll toss a few back!

Bibliography (pdf)

Writer's Memo:

This piece started as a funny little quick write wherein I  was trying to use a lot of my own voice and  humor.  I'm a coffee-holic, a people watcher, and a few years ago I read this book about the Coffee Trade which got me interested in the industry of coffee growing.   I was able to find that book and relate it to my piece as well as recommend it to a classmate. (The Coffee Trader by David Liss -- historical fiction for adults.)

As seems to be the case far too often, I got stuck at the halfway point, first trying to decide whether to make it a piece about taking political action or whether to write about a really entertaining barista I had observed at a coffee shop. I felt more interested in the man than the issues, but as it turned out I couldn't make the piece "turn" toward him.  Therefore I had to do some research about coffee consumption, Fair Trade, and similar issues.  That wasn't as time consuming as I thought it would be yet I kept having to do more as the piece developed and I realized  how little facts I had in my own prior knowledge.  So I found enough sources and wrote the rest of the piece...and re-wrote it...and re-wrote it!  I had a couple of mentor texts but they were pretty much only  good for jumping off points and a few good examples of word choice. I felt this was the piece that would not die!

One author, Julia Keller fo the Chicago Tribune, wrote an essay about coffee and  Steinbeck and mentioned that real, straight coffee should be called "joe" and it was about scraped knuckles and true grit, whereas tea is about raised pinkies and inherited wealth. I love that line!

I found out that writing in balance between humor and seriousness is a tricky business that takes lots of wordsmithing to get right.  I had to practice using my humorous voice without taking it too far or discussing the issues without being preachy.  (I also found out that my need to research and wordsmith during my drafting stage is making it difficult for me to reach the end of my pieces.  It turns out that I sometimes have to write away from the computer where there is no chance of using Google and Thesaurus.com  to check every little thing like synonyms, facts, etc. And it's good to get away from the email if you really want to write.)

I spent about 4 days on this coffee piece, including some learning that had to take place about whether to do end notes, footnotes, or an official bibliography. Then I had to refresh my memory about how to do it and learn how Word 2007 does it differently than how I learned in the past with Word 2003.  I'm not sure I even like the piece anymore but I think it came out relatively well for my first try in many years.

All the things I learned about myself and the process with commentary is what I can now add to my box of knowledge when teaching students.

I conferenced with colleagues and my writing teacher about all of the above. I could not have sorted through it or gotten unstuck without them.