It’s a hard truth, but as a Brit living in Yorkshire I have a particular flaw which creates disappointment for most of the people I meet: I don’t like tea. Nobody understands it, most don’t condone it. But thankfully for me, I am in a (mostly) healthy and happy longterm relationship with tea’s comrade, coffee.
At the time of writing, coffee has fetched some 75,592,191 hashtag occurrences on Instagram, with the Lorelai Gilmore-esque #coffeecoffeecoffee coming in at 273,137 uses. Even if I don’t Instagram every cup, I definitely enjoy each one; and if I wasn’t begrudgingly following through on the hype that I should start the day with a green tea, I think coffee might be one of my first waking thoughts.
I first started drinking coffee at 18 working as a teaching assistant with 3-5 year olds in a primary school. And I’m talking instant coffee hidden in the cookery corner with an equal measure of sugar. Fast forward to university and I was living the Starbucks dream with my Gold membership status getting me as many free shots and syrups as my little heart could take. (One time it couldn’t take it, but that’s another story for another day.)
Deep in the land of pumpkin spice, I needed a venue to run a student Alpha in and stumbled across the independent speciality coffee shop where one of my uni friends worked. Long story short: while my friends explored the big questions of life and faith, I explored the big questions of coffee and flannel shirts.
My friends at Mrs Atha’s and Maude care about coffee, not just caffeine. They care about where it comes from and how it’s made, from bean to cup. Coffee is a global commodity and it’s easy to treat it that way. One of my favourite things about independent shops is that you can spark a conversation about the origin of their coffee, and they often know more about where it’s from. Because the supply chain is shorter than for most large stores, it’s easier to track the beans back to their source and account for the conditions they are farmed in.
So that’s when it really hit me. Coffee is an ingrained part of our culture and economy. It’s a staple part of my life and budget. My coffee often helps to get me through my day; but is it getting the farmer through theirs?
Slave labour and unreliable crop yield plague the coffee farming industry. The Fairtrade stamp adds a financial markup and often requires an investment in community and business improvements, but prices can still drop to an unsustainable level. Where beans are bought directly for a higher quality market, farmers receive a significantly larger sum of money. But here, farmers are dependant on the quality of their crop and can end up having to sell to the commodity market anyway.
I’m not a fan of the idea that the coffee I don’t REALLY need to live doesn’t support even the basic needs of the people who are providing it for me. But sometimes making ethical choices feels like a bit of a minefield.
The good news: in 2015 the UK government introduced the Modern Slavery Act, requiring larger companies to be held accountable for the treatment of workers in every part of their supply chains. This means that Starbucks actually have to work harder to keep tabs on the ethics of coffee farms than my speciality pals.
But when I’m handed my flat white in the morning and I see the coffee’s been roasted at Maude down the road, I know they care about where it’s from and how it got here. And that makes for a happier cup of coffee.
If thinking about coffee ethics has you feeling the need for some caffeine, just start small. Choose Fairtrade in the supermarket. Google the country where your coffee has come from. Or invest in a reusable cup to reduce the estimated 7 million we throw away daily in the UK.
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