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Thomas Schueneman headshot

Compassionate Capitalism and a Story of Coffee


Part 1: What quality is, luxury is not

Classic syllogistic logic: all things of luxury have quality. Therefore, all things of quality are a luxury. This may be a valid argument, but it is built on a false premise.

Many things of quality are not a luxury, and what we often think of as a luxury has little or only transitory quality. This confusion arises from the systemic market failure of externalities and linear economics.

Does the luxury of shelling out the cash for an iPhone X, for instance, necessarily translate into quality? (or a Galaxy, I play no favorites here). Not so much, I argue. Even at a cool grand, the price of an iPhone X doesn’t reflect the full or real cost of getting one in my hand — economically, socially, or environmentally. The quality inevitably, even intentionally, degrades; whatever value there was is lost, no longer in the value stream.

What does any of this have to do with coffee?

After all, the global coffee industry operates within the same "logical" economic argument as any other consumer product, presumably based on the same false premise: maximize productivity and profits, minimize costs, keep your margins - and consumer demand - high. In this scenario, shouldn't coffee work like any other world commodity, producing a similar result? In this case, we are left with lots of bad or poorly-sourced coffee.

Certainly, manufacturing iPhones is a world away from producing coffee, but there are many lessons to find in a cup of coffee. Like the cherry from which our morning brew derives, the story of coffee peels back in many layers until at last there is the bean. Therein lies the nut of the matter, what coffee is and why it’s so important to us in so many different ways.

One layer in coffee’s story hints at this distinction between buying quality and simply acquiring luxury, no matter what the cost.

Fair Trade is a great start to the story. It is a well-recognized and effective process that can help level the market, especially for tropical agro-forestry commodities like coffee, where as much as 82 percent of the global supply is grown by smallholder farmers. Fair Trade helps shed light on an otherwise opaque value chain.

But is there more to the story, or the way we tell it?

Betting the farm

Nearly all of the world's specialty coffee is grown in the "bean belt," a mountainous, tropical band encircling the planet between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. Even under the best of circumstances, and even commanding premium prices on the Fair Trade and organic market, these family farms struggle to make a living and support their families. Every day, every season, every year, they literally "bet the farm.”

They bet that a sudden rain squall won’t ruin a drying crop, that the price offered for their crop won’t collapse due to a glut of industrial coffee on the market, that the dreaded La Roya coffee leave rust won’t decimate their entire crop - “dead on the vine.”

Smaller producing countries like Peru are increasingly focused on providing specialty-grade coffee to a growing market demand. Farmers hedge their bets through consistent dedication to quality. Averaging only 3 hectares (about 7.5 acres), the typical Peruvian coffee farm produces shade-grown, hand-picked, sun-dried beans, using natural fertilizer to maintain a density of about 2000 plants per hectare at an elevation of between 1000 and 1800 meters (3200 - 5900 ft.)

These are the conditions that lead to certified specialty coffee, but they don't guarantee it. The beans must be properly dried, cupped, Q-graded, and assigned nothing less than an 80 on the Q system developed by the Coffee Quality Institute.  Q grading coffee is an exacting and serious business.

Done consistently by dedicated farmers, the process of producing high-quality, organic or specialty grade coffee can be the model of quality we seek. The result is a transparent process that allows all stakeholders to understand the best possible outcomes up and down the supply chain, from the producer to the consumer.

Quality, therefore, flows back in a circular value chain to the smallholder farmer, devoted to the stewardship of his small plot and the quality it produces.

The stories we tell over coffee

“Don’t talk to me, I haven’t had my coffee.”

Substitute any other beverage in that statement, and you’d just be rude. But warning people away until you’ve had those first few sips of your morning coffee is considered a courtesy - or at least a good defense.

Offering a cup of coffee is an act of compassion. 

Migrating down off the high plateaus of Ethiopia some 1,000 or more years ago, coffee settles into the Fertile Crescent and along the trade routes across Arabia and the Mediterranean, Europe, the Americas. 

As coffee spread, so did new ideas, as they circulated across the proliferation of coffee houses across the old and new world.

From the morning sludge we consume at the office, purchased in bulk at Costco, to the finely tuned aromatic brew shared with a friend at a trendy coffee shop, coffee runs through the veins of our social interactions. 

Arguably, the human cultivation of coffee, in turn, helped cultivate civilization  A vigorous debate continues to this day about its origin story, but coffee cuts through human history like the legends of kings and long-forgotten civilizations.

Coffee merges elements of old and new; tradition and ritual; innovation and inspiration. Entire worldviews can be built around a simple bean.

True quality is rooted in compassion

With this overview, let's go on a trip!

In our next article, Triple Pundit travels to the highlands of Peru. There, we'll meet the farmers, explore the land, and yes, drink the coffee. More to the point, we'll see how Chameleon Cold Brewa small (but thriving) Austin-based roaster is moving beyond Fair Trade, forging direct partnerships with their producers in Peru, Myanmar, Guatemala, and Columbia. For CEO and co-founder Chris Campbell and his team, the story of coffee starts with a keen eye on quality.

"True quality is rooted in compassion"

It's a valid argument based on a true premise. People are betting the farm on it.

Photos by Mikesh Kaos on Unsplash (Creative Commons); Courtesy Chameleon Cold Brew (Used with Permission, All Rights Reserved) 

Thomas Schueneman headshot

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

Read more stories by Thomas Schueneman