Part II: The pillars of our green coffee trading strategy. What, why, and how we buy.
Why Should I Trust You?
2020 has forced us to look at certain long-standing issues in new ways. One of the biggest, unresolved, and longest standing issues in the coffee industry has been inequality in the supply stream. It’s always been there, lurking in the background, sometimes brought into the light, most often at events taking place at shiny convention centers. Lectures are made, discussion panels are organized, promises to do better are made, everyone goes home and many go on with business as usual.
Racial injustice and inequality is far from an American-only problem, but this year the Black Lives Matter movement gained so much traction across all of American society that even Corporate America felt pressured to make public statements about their failings in creating inclusive workplaces and promised ‘to do better’. The public reckoning with how deep and institutional racism is spilled beyond America’s borders and Canadian institutions, such as universities and political offices, rushed to create Diversity and Inclusion task forces. It remains to be seen whether these are mere PR strategies or meaningful change is on the way.
What Does This Have to do with Coffee?
In Part I we alluded to the ‘world behind green coffee’ and even though it’s quite challenging to unpeel all the layers through writing, we’re gonna try. According to an increasing number of marketing and consumer reports like this one (PDF), more and more consumers, particularly Gen Z, care about supporting brands they can trust. And unlike in older generations of consumers, younger generations need to have their trust earned, rather than can it be assumed.
Amongst the Canadians polled for the survey above, 65% think it’s important that companies are racially representative of our country and 57% believe that brands have an obligation to speak out against systemic racism and racial injustice.
As an Asian woman who has been working in this industry since 2008, I can tell you from personal experience that my workplaces have not been representative. And when I moved from behind the bar at boutique cafes to the international world of green coffee trading, I was horribly disappointed to realize that even in the specialty green coffee sector, where so much emphasis on how it’s different from commercial coffee has been based upon notions of “sustainability” (not to mention all the marketing claims), most organizations are not representative when it comes to who are in positions of power. From the perspectives of race and gender, amongst other marginalized identities. The fact that I’ve mostly felt isolated as a woman of color who has worked in positions of power says it all.
Ok, so what are you going to do to earn my trust?
I would love to be able to state that 100% of the coffee we source comes from marginalized groups across all the spectrums that people face discrimination. I want to be able to say this because it would be healing for my own marginalized identities, but also because I truly want to believe that business can be a force for positive change. What I can say is that because we are intentionally oriented toward this (currently) lofty goal, we are constantly networking and evaluating new opportunities to work with more diverse colleagues and are consistently reevaluating current relationships to see what adjustments can be made for more equitable supply streams.
I’ll give you a concrete example. Brazil is coffee’s biggest origin and it is incredibly male-dominated. In one of my former roles as a green coffee importer, a young woman from Brazil cold-emailed me saying she was taking over the operations of her family’s farm in Mantiqueira de Minas and asked if I was interested in sampling some of their coffees. Now, I received numerous cold-emails every week from exporters/producers wanting to sell coffee to me and it was impossible for me to follow up with every opportunity. But Laura’s email struck me because I received so few of these types of emails from women, particularly women involved in daily operations on a farm. This is generally because women producers face the highest barriers to market, not because they aren’t part of the labor force.
We are constantly networking and evaluating new opportunities to work with more diverse colleagues and are consistently reevaluating current relationships to see what adjustments can be made for more equitable supply streams.
While it wasn’t possible to work with Laura through my former organization, I maintained touch with her and visited her farm a couple of years later when I became an independent consultant and was travelling with a roaster who was ready to ‘buy direct’. I was impressed not only with her family’s farm operations, which are meticulously maintained, organized, and clean (all necessary to carry through selective harvesting and strict drying and processing protocol), but I was also blown away by her ambitions to work as an exporter for her neighbors and communities surrounding her farm.
Fast forward to this year and the samples Laura sent us were exponentially better in quality than those I cupped in 2018 when I visited her farm. We’re soon going to receive an exceptionally fruit-forward and complex natural lot from one of Laura’s neighbors. Andy can’t believe this coffee is coming from Brazil.
All this to say that the world of coffee relies on solid relationship building and incremental change. It’s not for the impatient or faint of heart. Me being a woman color working in this organization is only one signal that we’re deserving of trust. But more importantly, I know that over the course of future harvest cycles, you will come to taste and see that our offerings will always be exciting in cup profile and will increasingly be supplied by those who have traditionally found it difficult to gain the attention of green coffee buyers.
I intimately know what it feels like to not be listened to or dismissed because of my gender and skin color. I have a stronger internal driving force than many in my position to ensure the doors are open to more people.
- Melanie (Tunnel’s Green Coffee Buyer)