a photo of the rwandan landscape

How often do you think about where your ethically sourced coffee comes from?

Not what the ‘ethically traded’ label says or the origin claim stated by the company…but where it really comes from. If you’re rubbing the back of your neck or avoiding eye contact with your screen, rest assured this is a common problem.

Not just among consumers, but among companies and businesses that work in direct trade with coffee farmers. In our whirlwind day-to-day, thinking about just where our goods come from and at what cost can feel like a tall order (pardon the pun). You’re just trying to get through the workweek in one piece! When it comes to positive change, however…now is always the best time for it. From grower to roaster to customer, the journey of coffee is a winding one. One we can neglect on our way to get the most convenient cup.

An ‘ethical trade’ label on a box or recycling claim on a lid isn’t enough. Several troubling developments concerning coffee sustainability and ethical trading have cropped up these past few weeks, showing that green sentiments are often only skin deep. One story analyzing coffee culture in Rwanda — or rather, the lack thereof — speaks to the real disconnect the West has with the rest of the world. Farmers are caught in such a chokehold between consistent production rates and high costs they’re not even able to taste their own creations. To the Western ear, this is completely surreal…

…and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

rwandan smallholder farmers

Kenya is seeing farmers put in another chokehold, this time between high production rates and a neverending circle of debt. Coffee remains one of the most lucrative industries around the world, raking in billions of dollars on a yearly basis, yet it’s the farmers who bear the heaviest weight. Even professional communication, something taken for granted in the digital age, is a luxury. Several issues have cropped up concerning farmers being left high and dry after initial contact from distributors and buyers.

What sense does it make to have the coffee industry make so much money, yet the farmers who cultivate the beans are rewarded with long work days, loans and cold shoulders? It’s enough to have you suspicious over every flowery claim of noble green intent you see on the grocery store shelf.

Thankfully, all is not dour.

A lawsuit cropped up recently criticizing Green Mountain’s Keurig line-up for dishonest marketing, citing false claims of easy disposal and recycling. One consumer found herself at a loss when attempting to recycle her Keurig cups, only to be told that they are, by design, unable to be recycled. This can come as quite alarming to the eco-conscious consumer, particularly in an industry that prides itself on sustainability on every repurposed paper coffee bag.

This is just one of many ways to hold coffee companies accountable for talking the talk, but not walking the walk. When voices are stifled and legal technicalities keep businesses in the clear, it’s our dollar that yells the loudest. Avoiding this issue is not an option, not when global warming only continues to get worse and farmers are being driven from their homes in pursuit of paying work. Being critical of carefully edited behind-the-scenes glimpses, directly speaking with recycling facilities or just refusing to buy certain brands are all actions that can be taken.

Give it some thought today, even as you rely on a caffeine boost to get you through your next shift. How can you improve the coffee industry with your coffee buying, roasting or distributing habits?

(To new roasters and those considering founding a small roasting business: genuine sustainability is an important detail to consider when setting up shop. Check out my piece on roasting fundamentals to get a good grasp on the basics and learn what customers are coming to expect.)

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