How the Coffee Industry is Addressing Global Poverty

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TACOMA, Washington — Growing inequality in the coffee industry is forcing coffee companies to reconsider their role in the fight against global poverty. While there are many obstacles, many coffee companies are finding new strategies for improving inequality in the coffee industry.

The Relationship Between Coffee and Global Poverty

Most of the world’s coffee beans are grown in impoverished countries, and a high percentage of coffee farmers in those countries are affected by poverty. For example, in Costa Rica, an estimated 25% of coffee farmers live below the extreme poverty line. In Nicaragua, that number is nearly 50%. These coffee farmers are vulnerable to exploitation, often working in extremely poor working conditions with insufficient wages.

Additionally, climate change poses a significant threat to the economic stability of coffee farming. Coffee beans are a fickle crop, so increasingly dry weather and shorter rainy seasons in many coffee producing countries have caused coffee production to become more and more unpredictable. If a coffee farmer experiences a bad coffee harvest, they are unable to make a sufficient profit.

Coffee Sellers in Developing Countries

While coffee producers experience low wages, are vulnerable to exploitation and increasingly suffer from the consequences of climate change, the coffee industry is booming around the world. The Columbia Center on Sustainable Development reports that the coffee roaster and retail sectors annually bring in profits upward of $200 billion. Coffee sellers aren’t negligent to the inequalities that plague the industry. The Stanford Social Innovation Review reports that “representatives from Starbucks, Peet’s and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters… all report a push from consumers for more transparency of contract and socially responsible business practices. It is rare to find a coffee roaster or retailer these days that does not address social issues in some way.”

Many coffee sellers have looked to non-profit organizations like Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International to ensure that coffee farmers are paid and treated fairly. Fair trade non-profit organizations enforce a set of rules that protect coffee farmers, such as a minimum wage and a ban on child labor. Coffee products from farms that meet these standards sport a “fair trade” label, letting consumers know that they are supporting fair business practices.

However, fair trade organizations aren’t a perfect solution. While organizations like Fair Trade USA have caused the average American consumer to be more aware of the poverty that affects coffee farmers, Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, the most reputable international fair trade organization, has not been able to demonstrate that fair trade labeling has had any significant impact on the wages and well-being of coffee farmers. Philip Sansone, executive director of Whole Planet Foundation stated, “I just don’t think that the benefits are trickling down,” concerning Fair Trade USA.

One of the primary issues with these fair trade organizations is the limits they place on what type of coffee farms can be certified as ‘fair trade’. Many small farms are able to be certified, but large farms with a high number of employees are not; so coffee farms run by large companies cannot be considered ‘fair trade’ even if they offer proper wages and working conditions. Additionally, fair trade organizations including Fair Trade USA are unable to protect migrant workers, often the most vulnerable employees in the coffee industry.

Coffee Companies Working Toward a Better Future

Fair trade organizations are not a perfect solution to the issues in the global coffee industry, but fortunately, they’re not the only ones. Many coffee companies and coffee shops are developing their own ways to address the inequalities in the industry by integrating ways to relieve global poverty into their business model.

For instance, Mocha Joe’s Roasting Co. in Brattleboro, Vermont, maintains a direct partnership with small coffee farms in Cameroon, Bolivia and Guatemala to encourage economic development in their communities. Another brand, Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee based in Roswell, GA, gives back directly to the communities that grow their coffee by funding projects to provide them with needed resources. Recently, Land of a Thousand Hills built a health clinic near two remote Rwandan villages, Kivu and Ruli.

1951 Coffee Company:

1951 Coffee Company in Berkley, CA, is another company that takes its non-profit mission seriously. Ethical coffee consumption and fighting global poverty are at the core of their business. The company is known for its successful refugee community building and for educating its customers about the economic struggles that affect many coffee farmers. 1951 Coffee Company oversees every step of sourcing its coffee beans. Doug Hewitt, CEO and co-founder of the coffee company, explains, “We are a part of a chain of people from the farms to the cup handed off to the customer. Our mission and action take place at the end of this supply chain, but we cannot accept an unethical path to our intended ethical ends.”

1951 Coffee Company does more than ensure their coffee beans are ethically sourced. The coffee company also offers free barista training to refugees who come to the United States so they are able to pursue a career in specialty coffee. Hewitt states that the company also assists refugees with learning English and finding employment after completing the barista training program. “Establishing a sense of community at 1951 Coffee Company isn’t just a marketing idea to get more customers. It is an essential element of making refugee resettlement in the United States more successful,” he states.

Hewitt is proud to share one of 1951 Coffee Company’s greatest success stories: Liebe. “One of our Lead Baristas at 1951 Coffee Company entered the U.S. in 2016. He spoke very little English at the time. Most companies in the United States would not give him an opportunity at a job because he wasn’t able to complete a job interview in English. As a company, we knew not only could we provide him with a job, but we could provide him with the support he would need to excel.”

After barista training and starting a career at 1951 Coffee Company, Liebe is a thriving employee at the cafe. “Today Liebe trains our new employees, opens and closes the cafe, packages and fulfills all of our online orders and manages supplies for the cafe. While English was a challenge for Liebe when he first arrived, we soon found out Liebe was already fluent in six other languages. He just needed someone to give him an opportunity to work and begin to learn his seventh language and it came very quickly,” explains Hewitt. Passionate about brewing coffee and every farmer who makes it possible, companies like 1951 Coffee Company are leading the fight against global poverty in the coffee industry.

Courtney Bergsieker
Photo: Flickr

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