Originally published in the Capitol Hill Times.
Alongside rainfall, marijuana, and bicycles, coffee is one of the staples of Seattle culture. Industry behemoth Starbucks originated here, and new shops seem to sprout up like weeds under sunlight. Yelp.com lists 52 coffee shops on Capitol Hill alone: one for every 176 residents.
That’s a lot of coffee–and a lot of money. While they might appear to be little more than neighborhood living rooms–friendly and apolitical–Capitol Hill’s cafes are integral to the livelihood of thousands of people, from the farmers in Brazil and Vietnam who grow the beans to the baristas who pull your morning shot.
So where does the Hill’s coffee come from? And who benefits from its circulation?
Consider Starbucks, the Walmart of espresso. In addition to a couple of supermarket kiosks, three of its nearly 21,000 shops reside on Capitol Hill. The company’s website brags that in 2012, 90% of its coffee was sourced according to Coffee and Farmers Equity (CAFE) practices, which require things like compliance with local minimum wage laws, the right to collective bargaining, and no child labor. They were developed by Starbucks with Conservation International, a non-profit that’s been criticized for being too cozy with corporate partners including Walmart and Fiji bottled water. CAFE practices also carry environmental requirements such as shade cover–in which coffee is grown under a forest canopy instead of in a cleared field–though critics say that this just creates a new “green” market around existing shade-grown coffee rather than expanding it.
Black Coffee is about as far from Starbucks as you can get while still selling espresso. The co-op began last year as an effort to create “a non-hierarchical structure of work & a not-for-profit model of commerce.” One of their bean sources, Kuma Coffee, is a small, local roastery run by Mark and Elizabeth Barany, who trade directly with small farmers around the world rather than going through Fair Trade certification. While they previously published how much they paid farmers, Mark said in interview that an apparent lack of customer interest caused him to stop. Hudson, a worker-owner at Black Coffee who asked me not to use his last name, said that the co-op preferred “trusting in the relationships, not the label” to ensure that farmers, and not PR consultants, receive substantial payment for their work.
In a sense, coffee–the second most valuable commodity, after oil–is an imperial product. Beans overwhelmingly come from poor and developing countries, while the big consumer markets are in rich countries like Japan and the US. Production has nearly tripled in the past three and a half decades, with commodity prices that oscillate from less than fifty cents per pound to more than $3. Part of the rationale for Fair Trade, direct trade, and similar ethical-trading projects is that even if coffee farming is profitable in the long run, small farmers don’t have the capital to weather changes in price from one season to the next. Premium and/or guaranteed prices are supposed to insulate small farmers from the tumult of market cycles.
Critics say that Fair Trade, which has no definite meaning, is shifting from a demand for equity into a calculated commercial venture. Equal Exchange’s website says that its rival, Fair Trade USA, has “eliminated farmers from their governance model” and transformed Fair Trade from a social justice movement into a “socially responsible product world…” A joint study by researchers at MiT, Harvard, and the London School of Economics found that simply adding a Fair Trade label to coffee raised sales by nearly 10%. Frans van der Hoff, who helped pioneer the Fair Trade movement in the 1980s, predicted to the Washington Post two years ago that large corporations will eventually push smaller Fair Trade co-ops out of the market, then lower the prices they pay to farmers while retaining the Fair Trade label. “It just ends in fair-washing and smokescreens,” he told the Post.
Between the extremes of monolithic Starbucks and revolutionary Black Coffee, of course, lay most of the Hill’s cafes. Stumptown and Caffe Vita negotiate directly with farmers, and Espresso Vivace’s website says that its standards of quality imply environmental sustainability and social justice, since it pays a “premium price” to farmers who use shade-growing methods. Whether they adopt the institutional approach of Fair Trade USA or the relational approach taking by Kuma and others, Capitol Hill’s coffee shops are intersections of cash and conscience. Here, entrepreneurs and consumers make daily choices that carry far-ranging effects, whether or not they realize it.
For his part, Black Coffee’s Hudson thinks the separation between economic and moral decisions is illusory. “This whole system of buying and selling each other’s survival is ridiculous and cruel,” he said in interview. Whether it’s possible to change that system from within is an open question, which the Hill’s brewers and consumers must continue to face.