Javatrekker: Dispatches from the World of Fair Trade Coffee

I just finished reading Javatrekker by Dean Cycon.

The book follows Dean around the world as he visits the communities that his company buys its beans from, or would like to buy beans from. Dean knows a lot about coffee; what makes it distinct, how each region gives the beans their distinct flavor, and what makes them special. But beyond that, his entrepreneurship falls into the social category, as he works hard to understand the needs and troubles of his suppliers and how he can make their lives better.

This goes far, far beyond simply listening to some suppliers complaints. He hops on the planes and gets off in these countries (hitting up Central America, Africa, South America, and Asia), and talks to the farmers themselves. He understands their issues, their problems, and he's worked with enough coffee farmers to have good solutions to them. But he never just writes a check and walks away. Rather, there is a profound interest in getting these issues solved, and he makes sure they do.

This tale gave me a greater appreciation of my coffee. But that's too superficial to say; it gave me insight into how globalization and capitalism doesn't always work for everyone. So many of these farmers are brutally taken advantage of, with no hope of rising up and making their lives better. One thing that came up again and again is the issue of information asymmetry. Buyers of coffee will use their superior knowledge to buy coffee at ridiculously low rates - but the supplier doesn't know better. This allows the farmers to be brutally taken advantage of, again and again. This is a problem that needs to be solved.

Fair Trade is meant to be the solution for these issues, providing a price for coffee that will allow the farmers to continually make their lives better. But simply believing that ignores the nuances of international trade, international relations, and the middlemen who often still make make the farmers life hell. On top of that, most of the coffee is sold on conventional markets, and Fair Trade only amounts to a small percentage sold.

For example (these are imperfect numbers, sorry), in 2011, 6.2 million tonnes of coffee was exported. In 2010, producer organizations sold 103,000 tons of Fair Trade coffee (source).

That's 01.66%.

We have a long ways to go.

Entrepreneurship isn't enough. You're not a citizen of just your country, you're a citizen of earth. Taking advantage of suppliers in a cut throat economy is enlarging the economic gap. It is your responsibility to ensure your work brings everyone up, in measurable and sustainable way.

One thing is for sure - I'll only drink Fair Trade coffee.