I’ve finished the book so the blog is back! I just finished writing and putting together “When Coffee Speaks,” a collection of interviews with people who work in coffee. The whole point of the book is that I don’t do much explaining; I let coffeepeople speak for themselves so that readers can make their own interpretations and evaluations of the stories people share. I offer some context, but I keep my judgments to a minimum. I don’t recommend Direct Trade over conventional commodity trade. I don’t condemn certifications like fair trade or organic for being meaningless; I don’t laud them for being meaningful. My hope is that every reader can come to his and her own conclusions.
Even though I’m not making and indictments or any bold “this is the way it should be; this is what people should do” statements, the one thing I am saying with the book as a whole is that when you know more about people you think about them differently and act differently towards them. The quiet thesis that emerges from the pages is that you can’t help but think more about the coffee you drink (or the coffee your spouse drinks or the coffee they brew in your office). And when you’re thinking more, your actions change. From deeper thought come more conscious actions.
With “When Coffee Speaks” I’m not saying that organic or shade grown or bird friendly coffee is the sweeping solution or telling you to only buy single origin coffee grown on estates. There is no coffee that is perfect, and different coffees mean different things for different people. Ignorance is indeed bliss; when you have no idea what’s going on it’s very comfortable to just do what you do and not worry what the implications of your actions and choices might be. But when you recognize the complexity of something, such as the complexity of coffee, you can never return to that blissful ignorance where coffee was just coffee. Now you know something about it and you’ve heard stories directly from someones connected to it. And this knowing means that you will think about coffee differently.
And maybe those new thoughts lead to new actions. Maybe you become curious. Maybe you read the labels on the coffee you usually buy; maybe you actually slow down in the grocery aisle at the supermarket to really notice just how many types of coffee are for sale. Maybe you ask the barista at your local coffee shop where the beans they brew with come from. Maybe you do something differently because you feel somehow more connected to the product you are buying and consuming.
Connection alone does not constitute a practical model for doing business the way fixed price direct trade contracts or bulk commodity market trades do, but connection becomes the foundation for a business model that looks pretty good. In the book I speak with people who produce and commercialize coffee under all kinds of business models. Those models have their practical parameters of what constitutes “business as usual,” but those usual daily operations are always carried out by people. And if you can get to the people, you can get to the attitudes, and when you get to the attitudes, you can figure out if something is sustainable—if something can continue for a long time—based purely on whether or not that model is something people want to continue to be a part of.
The one sweeping conclusion I can make as a result of putting together this book, and thus the one blanket recommendation I can make for readers who still just want to know, “But what do I do with all this information? What coffee do I buy?” is to find something that you like being a part of. Whatever coffee experience you like being a part of, help sustain that.
Ignorance is bliss in interpersonal interactions too; if you don’t know the person you’re dealing with in a business transaction, it’s much easier to be rude. If you have no idea who you’re buying from, it’s easy to be angry that someone is delivering the coffee late or to complain that the price is too high. If a coffee processing mill were to shut its doors at four because “that’s when we close,” even if not all the producers in the area had dropped off their coffee, that would result in some angry producers. But mills that wait until everyone has dropped of their coffee—because it’s not just “someone’s coffee, it’s Don Miguel’s coffee,” are making themselves a business that people want to be a part of.
Any business model, whether it’s one that involves some species of direct trade or one that follows the most conventional commodity route, gets better when people stop being rude, mean, and just general assholes. A much more sustainable way of doing things is where people treat each other like humans, and the only way you can start treating people like humans instead of treating them like the collectively vague “people” or “humans” or “producers” or “exporters” or “end consumers” labels we slap on groups is when you recognize and actually get to know the individuals who make up those groups. Getting to know individuals and then actually treating them like individuals is a self-sustaining way of doing things, and it’s a business model is looking good.
When we buy coffee in North America and Europe we don’t usually have the opportunities to know much of anything about individuals behind it, but we do have the daily opportunities to know the people who deliver that coffee to us. If you want coffee that is “doing the right thing” or makes a “positive social impact” or is “sustainable,” look for coffee that also treats you right and makes you happy to be a part of it, because, chances are, if that coffee is treating you like an individual, it’s also treating the people who made it as individuals as well.
Being a decent person makes business better, and the more you know people personally or at least can hear individuals speak in their own words, the more it becomes feasible to be a good person. Because the business model of being a decent human is a good looking one and therefore self sustaining. The better something looks, the longer we work to keep it around.