Updated: Apr 1, 2020
Just about a year ago, I had the opportunity to travel to coffee country in Honduras as part of a volunteer project I took on for a local coffee company. I had spent the entire year, up to that point, learning about the coffee industry in depth, from seed all the way to cup.
Volunteering for a direct-trade coffee company taught me the importance of being a conscious consumer. I had no idea the coffee trade was so intricate, so controversial, and SO unfair.
Did you know? Your $5 cup of coffee only provides about 3-5 cents to the person who works tirelessly to grow it for you. READ THAT AGAIN: 3-5 CENTS.
When I heard that the first time, I was shocked...but I wasn't. You know what I mean. In a country so obsessed with profit margins (#capitalism) it only makes sense to try to make the most money you possibly can. But what about the folks who grow this coffee, you say? Why are they making so little?
It's really a story of the haves vs. the have nots.
When the people who grow coffee all over the world are impoverished, vulnerable, and uneducated, it's easy to take advantage of the process. There are HORROR stories about people who take advantage of farmers, called coyotes, who use all sorts of manipulative tactics to buy a desperate farmer's coffee at rock bottom prices - a total sham that almost always goes unpunished.
And to top it all off, women and children are most often the ones left to do the bottom-of-the-barrel work. Picking and sorting coffee is painstaking and dangerous. And the pay is little to nothing.
I'm not saying any of this to shame you or make you feel bad, but I am telling you this because there is something you can do about it.
Look for labels like "Direct-Trade" and "Microlot".
These terms are more reliably used to identify coffee that is sourced as ethically as possible. (Although, to be honest, there is such lack of transparency in the industry that it's really hard to know just how ethically sourced your coffee is. Even we were a little surprised to see some of the things we saw while we were there).
Support local coffee shops.
It is exponentially more likely that a local coffee shop will be sourcing ethical coffee. Local coffee shops cater to folks who are looking for a higher quality cup of coffee, which typically means more transparency. Make sure you ask the right questions of your barista or coffee shop owner. You can ask things like:
"Do you know exactly where your beans are sourced from? Can you show me?"
"Who did you buy this coffee from?"
"Do you know any of the cooperatives that are associated with this lot of coffee? Are you familiar with their leadership and business practices?"
"Is this a microlot?" (This means, was the coffee sourced from one - typically smaller - farm. This question is important because, typically, the quality of the coffee is better and the farmer is being paid more.)
"Do the farmers participate in fair trade practices? Is their coffee certified organic?" (I'll share more details about these later. It's not always what you'd think.)
Do your research.
When in doubt, look it up. There is a lot of information that can be found on the interweb (although, like I said, it can be confusing). I'd suggest starting with the International Women's Coffee Alliance, Vega Coffee, Farmers First Coffee Company, or Catracha Coffee Co.
Have more questions? Connect with me on Instagram! Oh, and I hope next time you grab a cup of joe you think of my dear friend Ana. She worked damn hard to get it to you.