Rosa Araly Gutierrez Rodriguez is a small business-owner trying to establish a profitable and sustainable enterprise that provides for her family and adds value to her community. She struggles some from year to year, as does every small business, but in general she has a consistent product and some years, if her predictions prove correct, she is able to exceed the expectations of her customers. Overall, she wants a good, stable business with the opportunity to be rewarded for any extra work she and her team put into making a truly above-par product.
Since you’re reading this on a coffee roaster’s blog you have probably guessed that Rosa is a coffee farmer, you’ve probably also guessed that we’ve been able to snag some of her coffee. The question you may not be asking is whether Rosa was paid well for the work she put in to bring us this coffee – that, however, is exactly the question we have been trying to answer. Turns out that it’s harder to answer than we initially thought.
Our journey to finding the answer has led us to books like Yvon Choiunard’s (the founder of Patagonia) Let My People Go Surfing and their value of “cause no unnecessary harm” (pg. 114) and to Karl Wienhold’s Cheap Coffee where he talks about how “a just supply chain would compensate each individual involved in creating… value according to who did what” (pg 79). We are still looking into resources like the Specialty Coffee Transaction Guide and other useful benchmarks to try and figure out what pay-equity looks like.
Books and articles, though, can’t capture the on-the-ground experience of our coffee suppliers and importers who have shared what equity and fair pay means in the contexts they are working in. They have shared with us how efforts to curb child labor have backfired causing families to be separated. We’ve heard that in many cases the historical price producers have been paid for coffee doesn’t even cover their production costs (which vary from country to country) and the recent increase in the coffee commodities market has just begun to bring coffee prices to the level where they are sustainable for many farmers.
What do we do with all of this? More importantly, how can we use this information make sure we are partnering well with Rosa? We don’t know exactly but we do have a couple of ideas.
First, we strive to work with trusted importers who have direct connection to farmers or cooperatives (groups of farmers that have banded together in a single community) whenever possible. This allows for a relational transparency that can’t be easily quantified in business lingo. Travis Hester, who runs SOCII Coffee Trading has had a direct relationship with Rosa and the community she farms in for over a decade. When he brings a micro lot to us, like Rosa’s, we know his process for attaining that coffee, his commitment to partnering well with that community and that he strives to pay an equitable amount for that coffee.
Second, we’re trying to provide sustainability and value by promoting agency to those for whom it is most often lacking. That’s a mouthful but it really does sum up our approach. I’ll explain below, bear with me.
- Economic Sustainability – if possible, we are trying to buy consistently from the same regions and grow the amount of coffee we are able to purchase so that from year to year we are able to be genuine partners that provide stability. We would love to see specific producers and the importing partners who transport their coffee grow alongside us for many years consecutively.
- Value – we want to pay for high quality when a producer we are partnering with grows it, and Rosa’s coffee is a great example of this. We partner with SOCII who buys a large amount of the community’s coffee and through them we have access to this micro lot. We know that Rosa was paid more for producing higher quality, but her coffee would have been purchased regardless if the quality wasn’t quite to micro lot levels since she is a part of the larger community.
- Agency – over the last 30 years coffee farmers have been paid less and less for their product. A super simplified example is below. I’ve only listed a few actors but keep in mind that there are many more moving pieces in the process from financing organizations to quality inspectors to shipping companies, etc…
- Eg. Coffee Roaster A wants to offer a high quality but well-priced product, so they push Coffee Importer B to lower their price on high quality green coffee, who in turn pushes Coffee Producer C to lower their price and, since Coffee Producer C doesn’t always have any other option (it’s either sell their coffee below the price and feed their family now, or wait and let their family go hungry while they wait fo a higher price) they have to sell. At the end of it, Coffee Producer C has little to no agency and they have to accept a lower price. “A” passes the buck to “B” who passes the buck to “C” who has no choice and either gives up coffee farming because it’s not worth it or, worst case scenario, keeps getting poorer and poorer until their farm is taken from them to pay their debts.
The example above is backwards. The way we see it, everyone in the supply chain is dependent on the coffee producer for the high quality in the first place! We want to operate in a way that pays fairly for consistent work and rewards for quality when it is present. The goal is to create long term contracts with producers via trusted importers so that the producer has stability, the importer has a vested interest in ensuring quality as the coffee is transported, and we have a consistent product with the possibility of being the first to get access to the superb lots when they are available. How does that give the coffee producer agency? Ideally, by stepping into longer term contracts, we provide the opportunity for the producer to stabilize their operations and eventually grow higher quality lots either through new plantings or new processing methods. The producer is then able to find the highest bidding buyer for them, even if that buyer isn’t us.
That’s all part of idea #2, so let’s go back to how we can partner well with Rosa. The third aspect of all of this is that we are constantly questioning our own processes. We know we don’t have all the answers and the answers we have might not be the best answers. So, we believe being a good partner is being a curious partner. We will try to ask Rosa and Travis as many questions as we can. We will read books and articles and attend seminars on all of this because we’re not the only ones asking these questions. In fact, if you’re reading this and you’ve gotten this far you probably care about this as much as we do. If you notice that there’s something missing, something that doesn’t make sense, or something that just plain makes you excited or angry, please email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s talk about it.
This is the first of many posts to come about how we’re striving to partner well, encourage as much agency across the supply chain as possible, and make sure, ultimately, that high quality coffee is sustainable in our day and age. Because if Coffee Producer C, rather if Rosa Gutierrez and others like her, give up coffee farming because it’s no longer worth it, we lose out on so much more than just good coffee- we lose out on the opportunity to leave the world better than we found it.