On coffee and justice

10 minute read

Corn can’t expect justice from a court composed of chickens.

African proverb

A comment on my recent post about technological fixes reminded me of something: In the fall of 2019, back before covid-19 or Trump’s first impeachment, Creative Mornings Cleveland invited me to speak on the topic of “Justice.”

As a child, my family nickname was “Commissioner”—as in Commissioner Gordon from Batman—in reference to my prematurely developed sense of justice. That’s pretty much the strongest thing on my resumé qualifying me to speak on the topic.

I’d worked, very briefly, for the Department of Justice in 2008, so I guess there’s that, too—but I was in a lab running experiments and building Gaussian mixture models from databases of audio clips—hardly weighing truths against each other on of brass scales.

But I’m a coffee buyer. I know a thing about that. So that’s what I talked about.

The audience was not coffee experts or coffee professionals, but rather designers, free-lancers, and curious people whose idea of fun was listening to some random white guy with a microphone speak rapidly in front of a Great Lake and an old tree at 8 a.m. on a Friday morning. But everyone there knew something about coffee, and I recognized many of them from their visits to Phoenix Coffee shops. The framing and the content of the talk reflect that audience and the privilege they wield—I hope.

Research for this talk pulled heavily from Mark Pendergrast’s excellent book Uncommon Grounds, Paige West’s From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive, Confronting the Coffee Crisis, William Ukers’ classic Coffee Merchandising, and my own travels and experiences.

You can watch the talk, in full, for free (as in beer—well, in exchange for giving Google access to your data) here.

I’ve reproduced the text from the talk below.


You might find it curious that a white man is up here to talk about justice. Or maybe not. After all, People who look like me have had the power to define “justice” for virtually all of Western civilization. 

That’s actually pretty important to this story.

What is justice? And what does that mean in the context of something like coffee?

I’m here from Phoenix Coffee. I’m the coffee buyer for the company.

I like to tell people that my job is to fly around the world and look at trees. In addition to collecting frequent flier miles and getting tussled in the back of pickup trucks, I get bitten by mosquitos and on a good day taste some damn good coffee. The idea is that I’ll find coffee, sign a contract for it, and arrange for it to come to the U.S. for companies like Phoenix to roast and sell.

But what does that have to do with justice?

Justice…is a nuanced thing. We have the dictionary definition, of course, but: we also have a thousand different phrases containing the word “justice”, each carrying slightly different shades or timbres of meaning.

For example, Justice is served. Which means, roughly, that something has been carried out fairly and with consideration of equity or the law. Or on the flipside, a miscarriage of justice.

Or, Do something justice. Meaning to render it accurately or in recognition of its influence or spirit. Fidelity in representation.

Or what about this one — obstruction of justice

With any luck we’ll all be learning more about that one, soon enough.

But none of those are really concrete things. They’re ideals.

I propose that justice is difficult to see. To really see. It’s almost an unattainable ideal, like Liberty, or World Peace (or for the Millennials here…retirement). And it carries with it a moral connotation. Morality… another lofty ideal so unattainable that for millennia humans have attributed its nature to the divine.

But:

Its inverse, though— Injustice: I think injustice is easy to recognize. We know it when we see it. When an act is so unfair and so inequitable that we can’t help but see it for what it is. Arrest and incarceration rates for drug charges. Redlining. Gerrymandering. Kids in cages.

But what if we’re so far removed that we can’t detect injustice? What if it’s morally ambiguous? You know what I’m talking about, of course. From the iPhone made thousands of miles away in a factory in China, to chickens being cooped and slaughtered invisibly, cleaned and packed in vacuum sealed plastic to the point that it’s sanitized and stripped of all suffering.

We have that in coffee too.

Let me give you some context. 

How many of you know that coffee is NOT a bean, but in fact is the seed of a fruit? It’s the seed of a fruit that grows on a drupe tree in subtropical regions between the tropic of cancer and tropic of capricorn.

But—Coffee is native to only one place in the world: East Africa. Specifically, Ethiopia. The same place where you can go see the skeleton of Lucy, the so-called first human. Ethiopia is the promised land — the cradle of humanity and coffee.

Every single coffee tree in every plantation in the world can be traced back to Ethiopia within just a few hundred years. 

So how did it get everywhere?

From Colombia to Mexico and Vietnam and China and Indonesia and Guatemala and Costa Rica and Peru and Kenya and El Salvador……and so on.

The story goes that one day, in about the year 850, a Sufi goat herder named Kaldi couldn’t find his goats. Eventually, he tracked them down to a rocky hill…where he found them dancing, eating red berries from a strange tree he’d never seen before. He chewed one of the cherries himself. It made him feel invigorated. He ran back to his monastery with the berries in hand. Disapproving, the monk there threw the fruit into the fire, which roasted the seeds. From the fire emanated a beautiful aroma. The seeds were rescued from the fire, ground, combined with water and the first cup of coffee was shared.

Now, the story is apocryphal — 

But we know that the first historical reference of coffee appears in Sufi literature from Yemen during the 15th century where it was used to stay awake for religious rituals. By the 16th century, coffee spread to the Middle East, Persia, Turkey and Northern Africa, and by 1600, to Italy, Europe, Indonesia and the Americas.

The Dutch East India Company was the first company to produce and export coffee on a large scale. They did this through a popular mechanism at the time — colonization. They colonized Java and turned its subtropical highlands into coffee plantations, using indigenous people as a source of labor. The first exports to the Netherlands from Indonesia happened in 1711.

Because coffee “beans” are actually the seeds of a tree, if you take unroasted, green coffee and sprout it, it’s possible to create new coffee trees. This would have undercut the Dutch monopoly over the coffee trade, so they lightly roasted green coffee prior to export to kill the seed and render it unable to germinate.

But, according to popular legend, a Frenchman smuggled a coffee tree in a bouquet of flowers he received from a lover in Holland and took it on the long journey to the new world. He took the tree to the French territory of Martinique, and by 1788, Martinique, now known as Haiti, supplied half of the world’s coffee. 

This incredible growth was made possible through one thing: the human efforts of Africans shipped to Haiti to work as slaves in the coffee fields.

The conditions that slaves in Haiti faced—overworked, underfed to the brink of starvation, housed in windowless huts, and with routine beatings, torture and killings by white slavemasters—were a factor in the Haitian Revolution just a few years later, which decimated the Haitian coffee industry.

Meanwhile, coffee consumption grew across Europe, and the New World. British colonization of India led to an increase of tea consumption, except in the New World, where drinking coffee instead of the British tea became an act of patriotism after that whole…tax thing. With Haiti out of play, this increase in demand for coffee led to an increase in production at the Dutch plantations in Java, which led to an increase in forced labor where natives were forced by Dutch overlords to harvest coffee for very little money. Entire villages died of starvation as a result.

Many of those plantations still exist in some form today.

All the while you had the Pope fighting over whether coffee was a gift from god or a temptation from the devil.

By 1727, coffee found its way to Brazil, but production there didn’t begin in earnest until after its independence in 1822. After that, Brazil built virtually its entire economy on coffee, clearing massive tracts of land and rainforest for coffee plantations. Coffee exports grew, and by 1850 Brazil was the largest coffee exporter in the world—which it still is today.

Like in Indonesia, and Haiti — the coffee agro-economy of Brazil was made possible only through the enslavement of indigenous people and a robust supply of humans brought to Brazil from Africa by Portuguese colonizers. Most slaves in Brazil didn’t live longer than 7 years under the abhorrent conditions of bondage there. 

By the time Brazil made slavery illegal in 1888, more than four million human beings had been captured and transported to Brazil from Africa.

Coffee spread to Central America, too. In Central America, rather than relying on labor imported from Africa, the Spanish conquerers looked to local sources — why outsource when you can insource? — they forced the Mayans and other indigenous people into a state of semi-slavery. The government violently evicted the Mayans from their fertile lands and forced them to work the now-conquered lands for their oppressors.

Revolts and rebellions defined the relationship between the indigenous peoples and the occupying governments over the next century — with coffee fields serving as metaphorical and sometimes literal battlefields— and like those plantations in Indonesia and the legacy of slavery – continuing to today.

If you look at the migration happening on the southern border of the US today…you see people coming from Guatemala and El Salvador and Honduras who planted or worked coffee farms. They’re trying to escape injustice.

I work as a coffee buyer. I travel to coffee growing countries, interacting with people who grow, pick, process, protect and export coffee. I don’t spend my time on beaches or at resorts. I sleep in farm houses and workers quarters in remote regions of countries that most Americans would never think to go.

When I started this work, no one really trained me. I got hired cheap because I had no experience — the idea being that I’d learn on the job. I got lucky. So maybe it comes as no surprise that by the time I’d been buying coffee for a couple of years that something felt…strange… about the way it all seemed to work. Call it an outsider’s perspective.

I remember my first trip to Africa. I’d been a coffee buyer for a couple of years, at that point, and this was my second trip out of the country, ever. I still looked like the guy in my passport photo back then.

Tall. Handsome.

I look out in the crowd today and I see a lot of people who look like me. I want to challenge you — how many times in your life have you stepped out of a door and felt out of place? The type of “out of place” where everyone in a city of 12 million people might as well have their eyes fixed on you the moment you cross the threshold. The people in Ethiopia, the cradle of life— fighting sectarian wars for generations, still remember fighting off the invading Italian armies—twice—while their neighbors next door in Kenya worked and slaved and died at the hands of their British occupiers. 

And here I was, the capitalist, the American, coming to buy a product so that I could sell it for more money back home.

Buy low, sell high.

Next door in Kenya, where they threw the yoke of the colonizers off their backs just sixty years ago, I walked into an exporter’s office to find that even though all of the coffee farmers are brown and black, all of the people who the government legally allows to export coffee look like me. Does that look like justice?

And what about the 20+% interest rates these farmers must pay in order to have cashflow between harvests? Who do you think owns those banks giving their “payday loans”?

Everywhere I go, the resonance of colonialism and oppression rings in the overtones of our bell of liberty. And yet if you ask the MBAs and the CFOs, they say I should go there with just one mission — buy low, sell high.

But is that just?

Even after a century of revolutions, liberations and independence, economic imperialism is the norm—not the exception.

If you pay attention and read the news you’ve seen articles about how Starbucks and Nestlé bought coffee from farms in Brazil that still use slave labor, in 2019 (!!). Even though slavery was outlawed there over a century ago.

And the very nature of the mechanisms set up for trading coffee at scale are constructed with imperialist architecture. Cost of production doesn’t factor into the price of the c-market, the commodity price indicator against which the base price of contracts is typically established.

In general, for most places in the world, it costs about $1.40-1.60 to produce one pound of coffee. Over the past year the c-market has averaged just over a dollar. That means that for every coffee bought using that typical standard as a starting point for price negotiations—which is the majesty of coffee in this country—the farmer who produced that coffee lost money.

And because of the layers and layers between buyer and seller, the length of the value stream — the feedback is hidden in harvest, export, currency exchange, and shipping cycles. The producer might never know they’re losing money until they go broke. And you, the consumer, won’t ever know either. 

It’s easy for responsibility to get lost when it passes like a game of telephone over a distance of 6 months and 5,000 miles.

It’s the perfect crime.

And worse, if you’re a farmer and catch on to these machinations, the cost of converting your farm into a specialty operation, or to grow some other product might be too high—you might be better off literally cutting down your coffee trees to sell for wood.

If people aren’t getting compensated for their labors—and in fact, if they’re further indebted with each berry they pick—isn’t that just slavery by another name? 

(Maybe with a little fair trade sticker stuck on the side?)

Economic imperialism is just a form of neo-colonialism. It’s just another form of slavery. 

So I understand the looks I feel when I walk down the streets in the coffee lands.

But we, the consumer, here in America—we don’t have to face it. It’s been drained of blood, cleaned-up, shrink-wrapped and put in shiny packaging that you can pay for with your iPhone.

…It’s hard to recognize justice.

I’ve built my career searching for answers to this problem. Building new mechanisms and exploiting efficiencies in the system to ensure that the coffee producers I work with are paid a fair price, two or three or four times higher than the price guaranteed by the little Fair Trade sticker people are trained to look for.

[That’s a talk for another time — but if you think the Fair Trade logo somehow ensures that product was actually paid for fairly—that’s the power of marketing.]

In Colombia, they have a phrase — malicia indígena. Translated literally it means “indigenous malice.” What it really means is that as a Colombian person, you are endowed with an almost hereditary caution about outsiders —because they might have come to take advantage. Or take your land.

Doing this work requires patience. Communication. Self-awareness. 

And as much empathy as can be mustered.

It requires that we become students of history and students of humanity.

The next time you go to buy coffee, try to look at it a different way. Don’t just look for the cheapest thing on the shelf. It’s not soap or chemicals. It’s an agricultural product, grown by people and touched by human hands all over the world who get just one shot, one harvest a year, with one tree producing just one pound of roasted coffee. That’s it.

Dignity can’t be bought but it sure as hell can be sold.

Make it count.

And if we can’t create justice, maybe we can create opportunities for it. Traceability, transparency, trust and community are requirements and the only ways to maximize the potential for justice. 

Justice requires the participation of those who hold the power.

We must engage with it. 

That being done, we must invite others to share in that power and invite them to share with us the risk they face.

It’s just fair.

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