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Spilling the Beans on the Impacts of not Roasting Coffee at Source

Coffee PodsAs a result of promoting various ethical* coffee companies here on Ethical Revolution I was contacted by Gary from Not1Bean who suggested that these coffee companies are rarely ever truly ethical as none of them insist on roasting coffee at source.

I asked Gary if he’d write an article for me to express the reasons why this might be the case. I then went to visit a coffee farm in Zambia and presented the article to get the view of a local coffee farmer in response.

*’Ethical’ can be defined in many ways, and as I explain in my prelude, what I have always defined as ethical in the case of brands and products are those which are taking significant steps to have less of an impact on people and the planet than their mainstream alternative.

Skip to: The case made by Not1Bean | The case made by a coffee farmer in Zambia

My Prelude

Ethical Revolution is all about taking steps towards more ethical choices. Whilst I understand that it’s very hard to reach truly ethical choices when it comes to consumerism, my aim is to take steps towards more ethical consumerism. Hence while the coffee companies promoted on this site, as with all of the brands on here, may not be 100% perfect, they are all making significant steps towards making it possible for us to purchase their particular goods with less of an impact on our planet. They are all significantly better choices than their mainstream alternatives. Whilst in an ideal world we would all be able to shift immediately to something perfect, this is unrealistic within the system we live in, so always making small steps to improve is the way forward. My aim is to list brands which improve the conditions listed on my exploitative products page. Step by step we can lessen our impact via responsible consumerism. It’s never a case of ceasing to improve once the ‘currently deemed ethical’ choice becomes mainstream. Once that happens we can make further steps to keep on improving on the impact of our consumerism.

The case made by Not1Bean

Not1Bean
(The numbers in square brackets link to the response from the Zambian farmer)

Impact washing within the coffee belt.

Many practitioners of impact investing are concerned that organisations are wrongly using the strategy’s popularity for gain.

Impact washing is the term allocated when companies subscribe to one or more sustainable initiatives in order to hide some of the less ‘sustainable’ things they do.

Coffee sector prices have recently hit a 15 year low, yet every supermarket chain has shelves overflowing with sustainably sourced coffee, and virtually every brand claims ethically sound business practices.

The clamour as coffee suppliers inform supermarket clients (and consumers) that the sector is not in crisis is relentless.

This message ultimately misinforms, the impression given that problems don’t exist in the coffee belt, as ever lower prices lead to widespread child labour and conditions analogous to slavery – the industry meanwhile seems hell bent on keeping it’s fingers in it’s ears.

Not1Bean QuoteAt Not 1 Bean we are at odds with the majority of the coffee sector, we believe that removing the farming community from the production process, before any value is generated, is a driver of abject poverty and the social and environmentally related problems that ensue.

This generated value is of course only realised at the roasting stage.[1]

Vital income from coffee roasting, life changing to poor farming communities, is in the vast majority of cases diverted away from those with most to lose and directed into the coffers of companies in far richer countries.[2]

Whilst companies strip producing countries of their raw materials, in order to maximise profits in this way, then the term ‘impact washing’ is perfectly suited.

It is simply unacceptable to divert this vitally important income away in the first place, only to filter back a fraction and then claim sustainable credentials.

Most companies roasting exclusively outside of coffee producing communities give the exact same excuse when confronted – citing a lack of freshness if coffee is roasted anywhere outside of the consuming countries.[3]

However, a visit to any supermarket reveals the shortest sell by dates on coffee bags as 9 months in advance, in most cases in excess of a year – sometimes two. If the freshness argument is valid then this would indicate that roasters are either saying that their coffee will be stale well before the sell by dates, or their ‘freshness‘ argument is simply a means of maximising profits – it has to be one or the other.

Drying coffee on a Zambian farm

Drying coffee on a Zambian farm

It’s not as if the industry argues internally against the idea of roasting in one location prior to distribution, the very largest coffee companies all have their own European or US based roasteries, each sending their roasted coffees on to many thousands of outlets across a host of different countries.

Many of these companies then resort to the argument that they blend coffees from numerous countries in order to maintain taste standards, and so can’t endorse roasting at source, (the freshness argument now discarded as they argue a different reason to retain the roasting revenue), this argument also disappears when it’s demonstrated that coffees are frequently labelled as ‘single source’ – from one region alone (attracting higher prices.)[4]

The truth is that the very same roasting machines, as well as the same know how, exists in the coffee producing countries as it does anywhere else in the world – we’d actually argue that the producing communities have generations of knowledge discarded in the race to export raw green beans from poverty stricken countries.[5]

These business models obviously only work where green coffee is procured at low prices – often below the cost of production itself.

As a very important side note, roasted coffee is around 20% lighter than non roasted (green), this could lead to large decreases in the number of cargo ships and planes polluting the atmosphere should roasting in producing countries be more widely adopted.

Another practice that surely has to stop is the re-shipping of green coffee, (about one third of Germany’s green coffee is directly re-exported, a great deal to the US), an unnecessary practice that serves no other purpose than to increase profits and further damage the planet.

We’re not claiming that all coffee could or should be roasted at source, but in 2016 Europe imported 3.4 million tonnes of green coffee beans (CBI), that’s £7.48 billion in roasting income, (at current prices), diverted from farming communities invariably living in abject poverty – that’s just one year and less than 30% of the world’s coffee.

The price for coffee on the C-Market is (as of April 11th) at a 15 year low, with the average age of a coffee farmer in Colombia being 56, in Africa 60, it would appear that the next generation of coffee farmers agree with our argument that the ever louder claims of a sustainable coffee industry are just not true.

Coffee is one of the most ubiquitous child labour products, yet by leaving the roasting income within the farming community these same farmers have no need to employ children and can earn (and pay) a living wage. [6]

We never roast outside of coffee farming communities, what’s more as a registered social enterprise we re-invest at least 50% of our net profits into these same communities. We call on the rest of the industry to do far more than they currently seem willing to do.

The experiences of a commercial farmer of coffee in Zambia

Roasting at source is a possibility that would bring us much greater financial benefits and we have talked about it many times. Freshness might not be an issue if properly vacuum packed. Our coffee expert with over 30 years experience does say that the big roasters don’t want competion and will try their best to keep you out. Below are some other comments in response to Gary’s article.

1. On removing farming communities from the production process before any value is generated:

Ripe For Plucking

Ripe For Plucking

In general I would agree – it’s a problem that is not only connected to coffee but you could say all farming produce. The price you pay in the supermarket for a product is a lot higher than that paid to the farmer for his/her produce at ‘farm gate’. If you investigate the world food market and trading in grains etc. it’s very convoluted and there are many companies involved all fighting for their piece of the pie. All farming communities would benefit from more processing at source but how feasible is that? Adding value to the farmer is critical but it’s not always easy to do without significant investment because often you need expensive equipment to do this. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the statement which talks about removing the farming community from the production process – Coffee requires a significant amount of processing before it can be roasted. I have no experience on how farming communities in other countries do this. However, as far as I am aware it is not possible to sell the ‘red cherry’ unprocessed. At least the wet processing part and dry processing must be carried out by the farmer so he/she can sell the ‘green bean’ on the market. Once these two processes have been completed the coffee bean is now ready to be roasted.

2. On diverting vital income from coffee roasting from poor farming communities to companies in richer countries:

Indeed what you pay for a single cup of coffee is much higher than what you get paid if you are just selling green bean. Roasting is not an easy process and should be done as close to market (in terms of time) as possible so that you don’t lose quality. It is very easy to transport the green bean around the world unroasted because it doesn’t lose much in terms of quality. As soon as you roast it it now needs to be used. If you look at who likes drinking coffee versus who actually grows the coffee you will start to understand where I am coming from. I am sure that some roasting could be done at source but I would then argue that roasted coffee could only be sold on the local market, if that local market is not interested in the coffee that is when this argument breaks down.

3. On the excuse given citing a lack of freshness if coffee is roasted outside of the consuming countries:

Roasting at home

Roasting at home

It is very true that as soon as you roast coffee it should be used, but using supermarket sell by dates is not helpful. All products in a supermarket must have a sell by date. Coffee, once roasted and sealed, doesn’t really ever ‘go off’. However the quality does decline over time. What would be interesting to know is how much coffee is sold in the supermarkets versus coffee houses. A coffee house which buys green bean and roasts its own coffee will tell you straight they don’t roast coffee and then sit on it for 9 months let alone two years.

4. On the argument that coffees are blended from numerous countries in order to maintain taste standards, and some coffees being labelled as ‘single source’ attracting higher prices:

Coffee is indeed blended in order to maintain taste standards. It requires highly trained personnel to ‘cup’ the taste and assess it according to international standards. They will then say you can blend this grade from that farm with this grade from another farm and it will taste good. Even single source coffee goes through the same process. For example you can’t mix coca-cola with Pepsi and expect it to taste ok. They are still ‘cola’ products but have different tastes. Single source coffee does indeed attract higher prices but that coffee has still gone through the ‘cupping’ process to ensure quality is there. From the same farm you would expect coffee grades ranging as follows: AAA, AA, AB, C, C/T, PB and Mbuni. You can’t just mix these together any old how (it would however still be single source coffee), they need to be ‘cupped’ and blended appropriately to ensure quality.

The quality/taste of coffee will vary from year to year on each farm. The benefit of being able to blend your coffee with another farmer is that you can help to mitigate a poorer quality/tasting year. If each farm were to roast their own beans they run the risk of having a poor batch one year and being considered by buyers to be a poor source of good coffee, for which they might not return to you again. Mitigating poor tastes is still possible if they have the specialist knowhow and training. I’m not sure how it might affect the process but imagine that if you have lower volumes to blend (as would be the case in the ‘small holder’ situation) then it might make it harder to blend and ‘hide’ the poorer quality coffee. Not necessarily something that couldn’t be overcome but certainly something that would need considering.

5. On roasting machines and know-how existing in coffee producing countries:

Sunset DryingYes roasting machines should exist in those countries which grow coffee (they do here). I don’t know how many communities themselves have the knowledge of roasting. Roasting machines are quite expensive. I’m not sure exactly how much but perhaps in the range of US $20,000-$50,000? One small grower wouldn’t manage to do it on their own but if they grouped together and either received government support or perhaps a grant from overseas then it could be possible. One would then need to train on the use and also consider how the upkeep of the machine would be paid for in perpetuity. Often group owned machinery gets worn out because no one wants to pay to keep it going, whereas owned by one business obviously it’s much more straightforward.

6. On coffee being one of the most ubiquitous child labour products:

We certainly do not use child labour here on our farm in Zambia, I cannot comment on other countries but I do know that in Zimbabwe during school holidays many ‘children’ would pick coffee to earn some money for themselves and their families. Ideally, and in ‘developed’ countries, this would indeed be deemed a bad thing. Put in to context, in these such farming communities we should remember that not all families can afford for their children to go to school and not all children stay as many years in school compared to more ‘developed’ countries. If it is forced child labour then yes that’s an awful, horrible situation but if it is voluntary and actually brings in much needed revenue to a poor family then is that bad?

Final words from the Zambian coffee farmer:
I do fully agree that coffee is a very sought after product and that the end user pays high prices for that cup of coffee. The cases I’m making here are just to highlight how it may not be as simple as it seems to roast at source, not that it’s impossible. Getting more of that cash into the pocket of the farming communities is an honourable mission and should be followed through as much as possible. It won’t be easy to achieve because we live in a capitalist system built around profit and shareholders who want to keep as much of that money in their pockets as possible. If you can break that hegemony then you’re on to a winner! Every country is different and each will have its own challenges. However, if governments and private sector come together they should be able to get the farming communities closer to that goal of roasting their own coffee and achieving better prices for the farmer.

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