The Necessity of Being a Producer-Friendly Coffee Buyer

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by Peter Giuliano, Director, SCAA

The job of coffee buyer is an amazing one.
I mean—the job is to taste coffee. What could be better than that? The work of selecting, roast profiling, blending, describing, and selling coffee requires tremendous expertise and dedication, and is one of the most sought-after roles in the industry. Sometimes, coffee buyers get to travel to the places where coffee is grown, which makes it even more amazing: the opportunity to visit exotic destinations and spend time with other coffee professionals across the globe can be incredibly meaningful and rewarding.

And at the end of the road is the coffee itself, and the fulfilling experience of bringing amazing flavor to customers and friends. The act of finding, roasting, preparing, and sharing special coffees with others is a good thing on its own terms: a small way to make life a little nicer. Delicious coffee can be a peaceful moment of beauty in a chaotic world.

We dedicate ourselves to the never-ending pursuit of finding and celebrating coffee flavor. It’s a challenging task, and can take up an entire career. This pursuit can be so all-encompassing, coffee people can start to think that it’s all there is: that what’s in the cup is all that matters. This is the opposite of the truth.

The coffee trade’s limited beginnings lay with Ethiopia and Middle Eastern nations, but it was the European colonial powers which brought about its worldwide expansion by establishing plantations in the East Indies, Africa, and the Americas. Much of coffee’s history is steeped in the troubled legacy of colonialism and its driving philosophies of expansion and domination. Therefore, though the coffee itself has always been exquisite and beautiful, its deliciousness was at odds with the harsh realities of plantation life. The decline of colonialism and the appearance of independent states in the tropics meant progress towards a more human-friendly coffee trade, and the appearance of coffee smallholders who own their own land. But the trade has taken a long time to shake off the remnants of colonialism, and inequity, poverty, and struggle have been a part of coffee for generations. Indeed, even today we know that many coffee farmers struggle to put food on the table throughout the year, and face challenges in financing their harvests, paying their workers, and buying agricultural inputs.

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Is this consistent with the specialty coffee ideal? Can coffee produced under circumstances of inequity and suffering ever be thought of as “special,” however delicious it tastes? The answer is clearly no. Ethics are a prerequisite to specialness, and specialty coffee buyers must commit to working towards equity and prosperity throughout the supply chain at the same time as they work towards quality. This basic truth has existed since the introduction of the idea of specialty coffee, and it compels us still.

The allure of cup quality is distracting and enchanting, and it sometimes seems like an end in itself. I argue, however, that because great coffee is so amazingly delicious, its very beauty can drive us to do the hard work of making our supply chain safer, more transparent, and more prosperous. Indeed, I think of it as a kind of bargain: if we want to enjoy great coffee, we must be willing to fight for it, and for the people who make it possible.

This has never been easy. The coffee chain is notoriously complex, and has for years been obscure and difficult to navigate for producer and buyer alike. The vicissitudes of the coffee market—especially price slumps like the one we’re in today—can throw farmers who teeter on the edge of profitability into the crushing morass of debt and poverty. How can we prevent these things from happening to our brothers and sisters on the coffee farm, our partners in great coffee?

Over the years, there have been a number of attempts to make the specialty coffee market friendlier to coffee producers. Certification programs, NGOs, agricultural development entities, and charities have all developed tools and put hard work into solving difficult problems. Roasters have gotten involved, putting time and energy into investigating their own supply chains, and developing purchasing standards to hold themselves accountable. These are all wonderful things, and they have made a difference. They have not yet solved all of the problems of the coffee trade, however; challenges persist for farmers in every country where coffee is produced. Just as bad coffee still, sadly, exists in the world, so does poverty. And we should commit just as much energy—if not more—to eradicating deprivation in the coffee supply chain as we do to eradicating horrible-tasting coffee.

What is the best way? Where is the magic bullet? What is the answer? There is no answer—and there are many answers. The only way forward is to keep pushing, keep trying, keep innovating. One thing is for certain: anyone who does not seek to be part of the solution is part of the problem, and any roaster who is not thinking about how to address equity in their supply chain should be.

The specialty coffee community is known for two things: its respect for and understanding of history, and its ability to innovate. This drive to innovate is particularly exciting in a world where technology makes things like traceability and daily communication possible. How can we leverage these tools, powered by the energy of delicious coffee, to make the world a fairer, healthier, and more beautiful place?

Once coffee producers are thought of as partners, as important as customers and coworkers, the answer becomes obvious: each coffee buyer must design strategies for respecting the needs and desires of producers into their supply chain, in the same way that we source our products to delight and fulfill our customers. Moving from being a self-centered business to a customer-centered business has been an incredibly positive paradigm shift. Now imagine the power of shifting to a model that puts energy into keeping customers, staff, and producers happy: a people-centered business.

Every coffee buyer—no matter how small or how large—has the ability to make powerful changes through awareness, collective action, and persistence. Therefore, every coffee buyer must dedicate themselves to serving the producers of our great product with just as much energy as we spend serving its consumers.

peterPeter Giuliano has been working in the trade of Specialty Coffee for 25 years, beginning as a barista and working as a trainer, retailer, cupper, roaster, coffee buyer, and business owner.  The SCAA has been a constant inspiration for him during this time, and he now serves as director of Symposium for SCAA, committed to helping cultivate and develop new ideas and leadership in coffee.

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