Royal Geographical Society Conference – AcKnowledging Ethical Economies

02 Sep

Last week I arrived in Manchester, dripping wet and freezing, to present my (unrehearsed, over-long) paper at the Royal Geographical Society conference, whilst wearing bike leathers. I think I made myself memorable! The conference was pretty interesting, but I ended up exhausted by the time it came to the equally cold but spectacular ride home across the Snake pass back to Sheffield. I didn’t die. This is good. There were four sessions per day, all with at least four papers in them. It was a lot to take in, and annoyingly, several sessions which I would have liked to go to, clashed with each other. What I did see though, was all useful stuff.

My paper was called “Creating the Quality market – the ethics of Direct Trade in the Central AmericanĀ  Coffee Industry” and was in the very interesting ‘Acknowledging Ethical Economies” section. It was difficult to judge how relevant mine was; my topic did seem to fit nicely with the original call for papers, as did all the other papers, but they were all very different. Coffee, ethical consumption as opposed to consuming ethically, Pampers nappies, and how business schools approach business ethics and corporate responsibilty. Nice to know human/economic geography is such a varied subject really.This paper was going a little bit off on a tangent from most of my thesis right now, but in all honesty, it was a bit more interesting to me that most of the stuff I am supposed to be writing at the minute and a good excuse for a subtly disguised rant. It wasn’t the best presentation I’ve ever done, so I’m trying to tidy it up a bit here, and hopefully something will be salvageable from it to go in the seemingly unending quality chapter I’m supposed to do for the thesis in… about a week. Gulp.

I do think that this ‘quality market’ is very relevant though – and the ethics of it are my main concern on a personal level, if not an academic one. I have written about quality so often, and there are so many ways of defining what ‘quality coffee’ actually is. A huge range of factors affect the coffee’s quality – from human skill in picking the berries without damaging the plants and processing it correctly, to maintaining the crop between harvests and so on; to non-human agents, the weather, the altitude, the temperature, the machinery used in processing.

Interestingly translated cupping form - I love "Not acceptable for Happiness"!

Interestingly translated cupping form - I love "Not acceptable for Happiness"!

For the sake of simplicity in the paper, I used the SCAA’s definition of ‘speciality coffee’ – that is, everything that achieves more than 80 points on their cupping scale. Speciality coffee is sold with the in-built assumption that it is better quality – it is the quality that differentiates it from conventional grade coffee that only gets 60-67 points on the SCAA scale. It is how those points are awarded that is the area of concern here.

Coffee quality is tested and analysed by ‘cupping’ it – essentially, tasting it, and the process is very similar to wine-tasting. Some parts of the cupping process are as standardized as possible – same weight of coffee grounds in the same amount of water at the same temperature, same roast level etc. Cupping laboratories are virtually identical the world over. Most cupping is also done ‘blind’ – that is, the cuppers are not given the name of the producers or the region the coffee is from before tasting, to avoid bias. However, the fact remains that the analysis is still conducted using only the cupper’s sense of taste. Cuppers are specially trained, and able to pick out the subtlties and nuances of different coffees, but their taste perception is still subjective, and extremely variable. Taste can be affected by anything from the cupper having a mild cold, to eating spicy food the night before, or even something as indirect as using fragranced cleaning sprays in the cupping laboratories. However, there are few alternative methods of analysis which would provide useful information. An analysis of the chemical compostion of the beans, for example, wouldn’t really be meaningful to the consumer. Instead, the cupper tests the coffee and grades it on acidity, body, fragrance and aroma, flavour and aftertaste, and overall balance, and gives it a grade out of 100.

This grading is then used to set the price of the coffee. Although the general global price of coffee is set on the New York stock exchange, this is not always an absolute, and there is plenty of scope for negotiation, particularly when coffee is sold by Direct Trade. As explained before on this blog, Direct Trade is an alternative trade model that, in effect, shortens the commodity chain by reducing the number of actors involved – basically cutting out the middlemen. Coffee roasters/retailers go directly to the producing cooperatives to purchase their coffee. This allows the farmers to not only receive a larger share of the final price, but also provides an opportunity for knowledge sharing. Cuppers can share their expert knowledge of the coffee’s flavours, and in turn, the quality, with the producers, helping the farmers learn how to improve their crop. This can be as simple as the cuppers claiming the coffee is overly sweet, for instance, meaning the farmers should not let the beans ferment for so long. It is often the case that within cooperatives who do not employ cuppers themselves, the farmers are effectively working ‘blind’. Most, particularly in Nicaragua, do not drink their own coffee, and so have no idea what it actually tastes like.

Nicaraguan farmers separate good beans from the bad on farms - in this photo, they would sell the coffee on the bottom but drink the bad stuff separated into the basket on the top.

Nicaraguan farmers separate good beans from the bad on farms - in this photo, they would sell the coffee on the bottom but drink the bad stuff separated into the basket on the top.

This lack of knowledge on the part of the producers provides ethical problems within the Direct Trade model. The coffee market is still very much skewed in the favour of the buyers. Coffee is produced in the third world and consumed predominantly in the first world, and so the power inequalities are obvious. Coffee is a cash crop; farmers often have no other income, and consequently are forced to sell their coffee for whatever price they can get. This fact, along with the lack of knowledge of the coffee’s quality, and also very little awareness of the global markets, the demand or the monetary value of their crop. Cuppers and buyers, on the other hand, are equipped not only with a vast knowledge of the coffee’s quality and value, and of the sorts of markets they intend eventually to sell to, but also with the advantage of choice. If they do not think a cooperative’s coffee is high quality, they are under no obligation to buy it. Therefore, the cuppers/buyers can effectively control the whole exchange, and effectively decide the incomes of all the farming families that have produced that coffee. This is not to say that all cuppers are determined to rip off, deceive and exploit the farmers, but simple economics dictates that it is never going to be in the interests of the buyers to pay more for the coffee than they actually have to.

Direct Trade does attempt to address this inequality by knowledge-sharing, as previously mentioned. There are farms and cooperatives in the producing countries, who have their own cupping laboratories and train and employ their own cuppers. Having someone from the cooperative with an equal knowledge of the coffee’s quality and value, who can also feed back this information to the farmers, is invaluable not only for improving the quality of all the cooperative’s coffee (assuming non-human, climatic agencies are also beneficial) but also as they provide the cooperative with more negotiating power when coffee is traded. This is starting to happen certainly within the bigger cooperatives but also on large, private plantations. There are some very obvious differences between Nicaraguan coffee production and Costa Rican here. In Costa Rica, more farms are privately owned, and the country is richer, meaning that most coffee farmers have access to better resources – such as the cupping lab. These farms sell their coffee to the first world buyers independently of the state-run cooperatives. As such, these plantation owners are trying to make a profit for themselves, rather than on behalf of a huge group of people – in a way, they have no choice but to learn about quality and the value of their crop in order to survive in the market. The cooperatives, particularly in Nicaragua, do much to protect the farmers and provide shared resources which farmers could not afford alone. But in some respects this also hinders them, because any profit made is shared out as well, and also detailed earlier, the quality of the coffee can vary so dramatically over a small region that no large cooperative can really hope to produce 100% high quality.


To complicate this situation further, there is the concept of consumer demand. I would argue that the vast majority of coffee consumers do not taste coffee and do not view its quality in the same way the cuppers do. We drink coffee for many reasons – the sociability of coffee shops, fashion, caffeine addiction and so on.

An iced 'coffee' with espresso, chilled milk, cherry syrup, cream and marshmallows. Good, but not really coffee flavoured!

An iced 'coffee' with espresso, chilled milk, cherry syrup, cream and marshmallows. Good, but not really coffee flavoured!

Often, what we drink bears little resemblance to the simply brewed cups in the laboratory – an iced mocha frappe with syrup and cream on top does not leave much opportunity for the taste of the coffee to shine through! When we can taste it, we buy coffee for the flavours we prefer on a personal level, and excellent quality coffee does not necessarily mean that every consumer favours that taste.

We also have very different ideas of what ‘quality’ actually means. My favourite quotation from one of my consumer focus groups is still the response, when asked to define quality, “er.. it doesn’t taste like crap?”. Branding on bags of coffee in the supermarkets, and in coffee shops will always inform the consumer that this is High Quality stuff. But it rarely tells you why it is high quality, because from the consumers’ point of view, how long the beans fermented for, or how thoroughly they were washed is not only not meaningful, it is largely irrelevant. The only thing we have to go on is the price and personal preference. There is also the tricky aspect of ‘ethical consumption’, where coffee consumers are deliberately buying Fair Trade or Organic coffee, and may well be assuming that Fair Trade equals good quality. Although the Fair Trade Foundation do assure us that their coffee is excellent, all the mark on the bag actually tells you is that the buyer paid $1.26 or more for a pound of it, and this is not the same thing at all. In a sense, the buyers and retailers of coffee are not sharing their knowledge and expertise of the commodity with their consumers either, and still leaves me with the question (for which I made myself somewhat notorious at another conference:) Why not let them drink crap if that is what they want??

All this leads to a very odd situation where the buyers and cuppers are effectively creating their own market. The farmers struggle to produce constant, consistant high quality, the consumers cannot and do not demand something which they do not really have much knowledge of. This essentially leaves the buyers/retailers carefully manipulating the branding of coffee to produce a new market controlled by neither producers’ supply nor consumer demand, but by an artificial and highly complex desire for ‘quality’. Most significantly in terms of knowledge-sharing and ethics, it is also a market where both the producer and consumer are in need of ‘education’ in relation to coffee and its quality.

Direct Trade then, does go some way towards bringing the consumers more in touch with the commodity’s producers. It does allows the producers a larger share of the price, and when expert knowledge of quality is shared between cuppers working at the cooperatives and the farmers themselves, it can help reduce the power inequalities during trade negotiations, far more effectively than with similar initiatives within conventional trade models. However, it is not a complete solution. Cuppers/buyers still have an unfair influence over the prices of coffee as a result of their greater product knowledge and market awareness, often leaving the producers unable to challenge them. When these buyers are setting the price for coffee without sharing their knowledge of its quality or value with the producers, then this trade model cannot be the most ethical or egalitarian. Further still, when faced with the idea that the demand for this quality may not actually come from the consumers, it raises further ethical questions about the nature of the whole cupping process, and whether or not it is actually necessary at all.

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Posted by on September 2, 2009 in Uncategorized


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