Today, we’re very happy to present the third and final episode of the Changing Tides session, recorded at Re:co Symposium this past April. The main focus of this session was to have those often difficult conversations around diversity and inclusivity in our coffee communities. If you haven’t listened to episodes #27 and #28, we strongly recommend going back to listen to those before you continue with this episode.
On this episode of the Podcast, we are pleased to welcome Colleen Anunu, Director of Coffee Supply Chain at Fair Trade USA and member of the SCA Board of Directors. Here, she leads a conversation with panelists Jenn Chen, Tymika Lawrence, and Chad Trewick in discussion as they revisit the third and final session of “Changing Tides: Building Diverse and Inclusive Coffee Communities” at Re:co Seattle in April 2018.
Special Thanks to Toddy
This talk from Re:co Seattle is supported by Toddy. For over 50 years, Toddy brand cold brew systems have delighted baristas, food critics, and regular folks alike. By extracting all the natural and delicious flavors of coffee and tea, Toddy Cold Brew Systems turn your favorite coffee beans and tea leaves into fresh cold brew concentrates, that are ready to serve and enjoy. Learn more about Toddy at http://www.toddycafe.com.
Hello everybody, I’m Colleen Anunu, Colleen Anunu, Director of Coffee Supply Chain at Fair Trade USA and member of the SCA Board of Directors. You’re listening to the Re:co podcast, a special episode of the SCA podcast. The Re:co podcast is dedicated to new thinking, discussion, and leadership in Specialty Coffee, featuring talks, discussions, and interviews from Re:co Symposium, SCA’s premier event dedicated to amplifying the voices of those who are driving specialty coffee forward. Check out the show notes for links to our YouTube channel where you can find videos of these talks.
This episode of the Re:co Podcast is supported by Toddy. For over 50 years, Toddy brand cold brew systems have delighted baristas, food critics, and regular folks alike. By extracting all the natural and delicious flavors of coffee and tea, Toddy Cold Brew Systems turn your favorite coffee beans and tea leaves into fresh cold brew concentrates that are ready to serve and enjoy. Learn more about Toddy at toddycafe.com. Toddy: Cold brewed, simply better.
Today, we’re very happy to present the third and final episode of the Changing Tides session, recorded at Re:co Symposium this past April. The main focus of this session was to have those often difficult conversations around diversity and inclusivity in our coffee communities. If you haven’t listened to episodes #27 and #28, we strongly recommend going back to listen to those before you continue with this episode.
On this episode of the Podcast, we are pleased to welcome Jenn Chen, San Francisco-based coffee marketer, writer and photographer for specialty coffee companies. She believes in the power of creating inclusive digital and in-person communities. Coffee Marketer and member of the SCA’s Membership Advisory Council and the ED&I Task Force. Welcome, Jenn.
We’re also pleased to welcome Tymika Lawrence, Green Coffee Sales representative for Atlas Coffee Importers Regional Partnership Manager of Sales at Genuine Origin, and member of the SCA’s ED&I Task Force. Welcome, Tymika!
And last but not least, Chad Trewick, Owner of Reciprocafé, which works on mutual-benefit priorities for the coffee value chain, and member of the SCA Board of Directors. Hello, Chad.
Welcome to the podcast, y’all!
We’re going to start by listening to a panel you all took part of at Re:co during our session on diversity and inclusivity, then we’ll come back and talk about the session as a whole. Does that sound good?
Ok, here is our final panel in the Changing Tides session at Re:co this past April. Jenn, Tymika, and Chad were on this panel with Isabela Pascoal Becker, Doug Hewitt, and Michelle Johnson. Let’s take a listen and we’ll come back to chat.
Colleen Anunu: And so this conversation is called ‘The Uncomfortable Conversation’. And it’s an exploration of the ways that these conversations around marginalization and privilege in the world but also within the context of the industry that we all exist in. Why are these necessarily uncomfortable and how to get comfortable in that uncomfortability?
So with that I would like to introduce three of the panelists from the first session, and then three newcomers. We have Michelle Johnson, we have Chad Trewick from Recipro Cafe and Tymika Lawrence, who is the East Coast Sales Representative for Genuine Origin.
Great. So I really want to start it off with a question to you three as newcomers to this panel on why these conversations are necessarily uncomfortable for everyone that has them. And maybe also explore a little bit about how we can position ourselves in a way that we can engage in a productive way.
Michelle Johnson: I think these conversations are uncomfortable because it forces those with privilege, like you said was a triggering term for a lot of people, to have to look inward and realize that… no one wants to feel like they didn’t put in hard work. No one wants to feel like what they did didn’t matter. But you have to give up something so that those without can get ahead. And once you realize that… no one wants to give up power. Like everyone wants to make sure that they have their seat at the table and keeps it.
So when we were having to talk about these types of things, it’s those realizations are very hard to swallow and getting past that defensiveness is very difficult.
Colleen Anunu: I mean, it’s like Vava Angwenyi said in her talk that when she was working to empower women farmers in her communities that the men were feeling very disempowered and they were feeling pretty agitated.
Chad Trewick: I think the conversations are difficult because they are, like Michelle said, they’re calling people on their bias and there and they’re exposing their privilege. I have occupied a very confusing space through most of my adult life where I can walk through the world with an enormous amount of privilege as a rich white male, for all observational purposes a heterosexual male. And a lot of assumptions are made and if I don’t call people on that and have that uncomfortable conversation than I’m in a situation where I have to pretend to be something that I’m not. It’s uncomfortable to talk about.
Tymika Lawrence: I think a lot of these conversations are necessarily uncomfortable because to echo what they both said, nobody wants to acknowledge the fact that they may have played a role in the marginalization of somebody else.
But there is just not a reckoning with truth in general, right? So like if we all knew the history of the United States it wouldn’t be surprising that there are certain communities that are marginalized. And structurally, from the federal government on down, it is… you can look it up that that was done on purpose. Like Phyllis said, some systems do what they’re meant to and until you dismantle them they will continue to do so, even if we put a better face on it. And I do think there is a degree of – actually Andre mentioned it in his last in that talk before lunch – where he said if we were forced to reckon with our consumption… So there are people who purposefully do not seek out knowledge or rather subconsciously don’t seek out knowledge because they know if they did, it would make an impact on the decisions they make and the things that they have to reckon with.
And I do think that there is cognitive dissonance and I do think that there is a lot of subconscious distancing between the issues. Because it’s uncomfortable but it’s important. If you don’t realize if just having the conversation makes you uncomfortable, imagine the level of discomfort that other people must be living with, right? If your comfort has been so prized that you literally don’t understand the realities of the country that you live in, then how comfortable could everyone else be?
And so this conversation is gonna have to be uncomfortable, and like Michelle mentioned, there is someone who actually in this Barista Hustle group about the panel we were on last year, was like ‘these ladies just like to complain’ and like, I could literally never talk about this again, I would be just the happiest. I love coffee. I’m talking about coffee. I’m not too shabby at it. I would love to just talk about that. Right but I don’t have the option of not talking about it.
So like Chad said, it is also uncomfortable for us to have these conversations. And so it’s uncomfortable on on all sides, but I do think in regard to like “how do you have these conversations in a way that leaves people opening to listen to them?” I think two years ago Tymika would have said “well, you just have to be patient, you have to do this, and you do that.”
But there is a degree of “you just have to get over yourself,” right? You don’t want to talk about these things, but people are living them. And so it’s like, I don’t really care that you don’t want to talk about it because we’re tired of living with [it]. And if you would just amend your actions, we wouldn’t even talk about it. But if you won’t and if you’re gonna make me do it, you just have to get over yourself. And so there is just a degree of that, right?
It is an unfair ask of the people who are always maneuvering around the things that make life hard for them to then, when they bring it up to you, to only do it in a way that’s comfortable for you because that’s the only way that you can listen. There’s really not another word: it’s just insensitive.
And it’s the lack of empathy there is staggering and so I do think, as much as I would love to always be able to have the conversation the way that I am now when it’s touching every part of your life, you can’t always. You are, we are human beings with the same emotional capacity that is being tested often. And so then if people are reacting in a way that seems sort of dramatic, you have to imagine, “were in those shoes, if I were always maneuvering around these things, if I always have to think about them.” I’m like, there are people who get their coffee wrong and they lose it. And so I do think that you just have to get over yourself.
And also, really, try true empathy and put yourself in that person’s shoes and what must that be like and, would I always be able to be composed and patient if that were me?
Colleen Anunu: So I want to open it up to everyone now and ask you, because we have we intentionally focused on this concept for the US or retail market, but then also across the value chains as well.
And I I want to know there are people out there, that especially in the Barista Hustle group and in other areas on social media and then in our lives, that say “you’re having a nuanced conversation about privilege. But there are people that are struggling to exist right? So, where is this conversation?”
Is there room for this conversation and that conversation? Or how do you navigate that sort of that criticism of the type of level of nuanced discussion that we’re having?
Michelle Johnson: So what this reminds me of… This was the link that was sent to me recently and I had placed it in our last newsletter at Barista Hustle because I feel like it directly answers this question. It was a National Geographic article that was a photo essay about indigenous transgender woman working on coffee farms in Colombia.
So to say that, especially what was going on last year with Dubai and the Deferred candidacy policy, to say that this is just an American snowflake conversation and that but that’s just them being American. No, these identities exist around the world and at our coffee farms. Like how can you erase that? So yeah, we do have the space in the capacity to have both these conversations at the same time because they are happening at the producing end of the value chain as well as the retail.
Tymika Lawrence: And I think the conversation is only meant to derail. I can’t see a way in which that that critique is useful. Because there is nobody who would run their business this way, right? So if you were running a cafe and your heater stopped working, but also every day the register was off by US$30, you would never say “gotta focus on one thing. So, I guess I’ll pick the heater.”
You would look at all the problems that are in the business that you’re running and try to evaluate them all and fix them all. Because even though you might not be able to, you would never say I can only focus on one issue. And so that is such a derailing thing to do and it’s a way to say, “well you have in this situation relative privilege. So just stop talking and worry about people, worry about the issues that are happening at origin.”
And if you find yourself wanting to make that critique, I would stop. Simply because if a person is saying this, it means that… And I do think there is this thing where we’re always like ‘let’s tie it to a statistic’. Which I’m all for because the statistics are in my favor. But even if they weren’t, I do believe in tying things to statistics to make them palatable.
But I do think that even if it’s an issue you can’t understand, why wouldn’t you not want to be empathetic right? So if it’s something that hasn’t occurred to you, it’s because it doesn’t happen to you and if it doesn’t happen to you, it doesn’t mean it’s not real and if it’s enough for someone to bring up, that’s it. Right?
Why does there even need to be a ranking of the things that make someone’s life horrible. It just seems so petty.
Isabela Pascoal: I guess it’s a very good perspective. But after what you were saying, I would follow up because you’re saying that we have to put ourselves in each other’s shoes.
And what I’ve been learning in our farm, and in Brazil, and in the countryside, is that we have to wear their shoes and learn that from my privilege to theirs, there’s a huge road. And I cannot jump from my side to their side. Even if I’m wearing their perspective.
So what we learn is: how can I start shortening this road so that everybody will be able to talk about the difficult issues? Because what I learned… For a couple of years, we do research in the farm and we ask what people understand from being sustainable. And for two years in a row, it comes because we are paid in the right date. Just as if payment would be a sign of sustainability.
Second thing is because you invest in irrigation, we were like, “what’s the point? Because it guarantees my job.” That’s why they understand sustainability.
So what we have been trying to [do], is from this knowledge that they just want to feel safe because of their employment, we want to shorten this bridge to reach the tip of Maslow pyramid [of needs].
So what we did is start doing things that creates a link to the people that we work with by, for example, we named our very best coffees after the women that work in the farm. So there was a Maria, there was a lot of brand names. And these little things, this creates a link to them and by this link, we create a trustful path so that we can start inserting more difficult things, like the feminist, like taking care of their health, like many aspects that you have to build this bridge into being able to talk to them.
But what is our most important tool? Education. So we have a lot of programs in the farm, from giving scholarship to supporting school materials to their children. Because we believe that with education everyone will be able to make their own choices. We don’t want to make choices for them, for no one, from pickers to managers. We don’t want to do this. We don’t want to do this anywhere.
We want to give as much as knowledge and education, so from a picker to a small producer, they can find their own way, their best way for them to improve their business, to improve their life. And that’s how we believe we are contributing.
Doug Hewitt: Yeah, I think this question is, as Tymika said, is often meant to derail a conversation. Not deflecting it, ‘let’s talk about this instead’. It’s just to shut down the conversation.
And I think a lot of times, in the work that we’ve done, we’ll often see a news article, maybe a release or something, [saying] “but why aren’t you helping this group? Why aren’t you helping this group? Why aren’t you helping this one?”
And I think very often for us, we have to respond in a way that says “we’re not against working with any of those groups. This is the one the group of people that we we’re equipped to work with” and to work with this issue of injustice and not to put down the efforts that are taking place anywhere else.
And I think if we try to like say “okay, we can deal with a certain level of Injustice here because this is really the real problem,” I think that begins to make us numb to Injustice in general and just the ones that we’ve prioritized. We’re like “we prioritized this one so this is injustice. The others, we’ll just be numb to that.” And I think that that’s not okay.
Colleen Anunu: so in the call that we had last week, we started talking a little bit more dynamically and Tymika you said something provocative, shock, that you had a perspective that you’re finding, in your experience, that the longer people are in the coffee industry or the more recognized they are, the less that they actually pipe up about a lot of these injustices. And wonder if you could share about that and then I would love to have your perspective Chad and Jenn.
Tymika Lawrence: Yeah, my reason for saying that is twofold.
We this came up essentially because Colleen was saying that she felt like a lot of the Organizations that were put up there, Colleen feels like the conversation is changing because all these organizations have sprung out. But this is actually something that Phyllis mentioned earlier, and I’m like, “yeah, but those orders are coming from people who are feeling these issues the most,” right?
So like there are a lot of issues when I started as a barista, I don’t experience now in my role in the same way, right? So I have like insulation in my role that people that other people don’t. And so a lot of all of this organizing that we’re seeing is totally groundswell coming from like the entry point to the coffee industry.
And so when we’re looking at conversations shifting, they are shifting but, to reference Four Barrel, it’s because of the end users involved. A lot of the things that we’re talking about today don’t have anything to do with the end customers, like the person that is taking that coffee from a barista or grabbing a bag of beans from the shelf, right?
These are internal industry issues that customers, end users have no context for. These words mean nothing to them. Because they don’t mean anything to them, we could not ever talk about these issues and not ever move the needle without it ever touching them. Unless someone did some investigative reporting that somebody actually paid attention to.
And so I do believe that when we’re having these sorts of conversations, that there is a hesitancy to name, to call things what they are. There just is.
I don’t think that we will be insulated in that way forever. As globalization continues and as coffee consuming goes up, I don’t think it will be possible, as producers get connected to social media directly, I don’t think it will be possible to not continue to not have these conversations and to not actually name our issues.
So I think it would be good if we would start. Because I do feel like we could find ourselves in that place, 20 years from now, 25 years from now, when everything is even more interconnected than it already is. And I do feel pretty strongly that it is hard to get people to be upfront about that sort of stuff the longer they’re in the industry, depending on the role that they have.
Michelle Johnson: I want to piggyback off of that because as the Chocolate Barista, I’m no longer a barista and I have a different position now, so I’m not directly engaged with what’s happening to baristas.
But that’s where amplification comes into play because as you move up and you’re in the industry longer, and you start to gain a platform and have the microphone handed to you more often, you can pass that along and help those who are still very much dealing with those problems to be heard instead of you just trying to speak for everybody.
Colleen Anunu: Jenn, I would love to hear your perspective as someone that’s directly working with people and to amplify them.
Jenn Chen: So I mentioned earlier to make change where you can and one of the organizations that I helped with was on that slide, the Bay Area Coffee Community. I didn’t start it, but I did help revive it three years ago. And these difficult conversations or having space for something that’s not just a throw down for baristas, like maybe we can have some other events for non- baristas, like everyone needs to learn and not everyone has the same access to education in their business.
So I think yielding space to some of these conversations, I was one of those people that Tymika mentioned of… I wasn’t so comfortable having this conversation four years ago. I still hate it. But I felt like my voice and my representation, anyone who looks like me, really I haven’t seen on stage… Actually, I’m thinking today I am the only Asian American I think, today, Asian woman.
So visibility is important, having your voice heard is important. Even when you’re writing or marketing or organizing events having people who don’t look like you is important. For me almost everyone looks not like me, so it doesn’t really matter. But yeah, I think I think giving voice to not just baristas, but a lot of people in the industry is important.
Tymika Lawrence: You just reminded me of one thing if I may. When we’re talking about…. I think part of the reason why people are less forthcoming as they go through the coffee industry is that we make it hard for people that don’t tow the party line, of making people comfortable to have careers.
And that won’t serve any of us going forward. Like a really good example actually is like that Pepsi commercial from a few years ago, where essentially people kept saying “doesn’t Pepsi have any…” There were there was an allusion to police brutality and one of the Kardashian-Jenners gave somebody a Coke and all of a sudden everything was fine. And it was really off the mark and anybody that was is in a community that’s affected by those issues would know that it was off the mark. And everyone kept saying “don’t they have any women or people of color or black people in Pepsi’s boardroom or in their advertising room?”
And I’m like, I don’t necessarily know that they don’t. They actually might. But does the person feel comfortable saying something? So if you can only do well in a company, and of course, you’re not going to be yelling at each other in a boardroom. But if you can only do well in a company by agreeing with your CEO or not saying anything that makes anybody uncomfortable or say anything that’s challenging, then that’s what’s going to happen.
Even if the people are in your company people who could stop you from making mistakes, and I’m going to bring up Four Barrel again, because it applies. Women worked at Four Barrel. There were women on the management team at Four Barrel. And if there was one person with the foresight to say ‘we need that guy to go’, this is gonna be an issue.
But did anyone feel comfortable saying that? Obviously not. Or even if they did say it, were they respected enough for anything to be done about it? No.
So a culture was at that company where even if someone would say something, nothing would happen. So we don’t know whether they did or didn’t and this is a major loss of income that could have been avoided in a place where the culture was “yes, you can disagree. Yes, you can call out something that’s wrong.”
And so it’s like, I don’t care, you could hire a roomful of marginalized people. If you don’t respect their opinions enough or if you haven’t created an environment or if you ever see someone not agree with you, and you automatically are like, “no I can’t accept that in an employee” then it doesn’t matter, right? And so you still end up in the same positions anyway.
So I implore everybody to take a look at like the standards that you have as far as…. And honestly the standards are not the same across the board. I have been told I’ve been emotional in a meeting in meetings where men yell at each other. I mean they’re yelling and I’m like, “I don’t know, maybe?” You don’t know anger is an emotion. So, if you’re yelling, you’re being pretty emotional. And I’ve never yelled in a meeting because I, black lady, cannot yell in the place I work, right?
And so it’s not even that these standards are applied across the board. It’s fine for some people to disagree and is not fine for others. So you should look at the standards to which you’re holding your staff and, if all they ever say is yes to you, you have not created a work environment where they feel like they have the right to disagree. Sorry.
Colleen Anunu: Take us home Chad.
Chad Trewick: Great. Well one of the things I think is really interesting. I have the perspective of having been in the industry for 25 years and we’re just now on the cusp of what I think is a growing call out culture. And I think it’s long overdue, because to some extent the lack of equity and equal opportunity in our industry is pushed aside. And that lack becomes normalized. Just like our crazy politics are becoming normalized.
And the longer you’re at it, the less attention is drawn to those things. And so we need for these things to be called out. Those of us who are entrenched in the emotional work, we have to do the work to contribute to conscientious and awareness raising, making ourselves uncomfortable and hopefully making other people uncomfortable.
It is no small amount of work and I think it’s been talked about on this stage, to have to go through the mental list: “am I safe? Can I talk about this? These are my hosts. If I tell them this are they still going to want to be my hosts?” And if we aren’t doing those things and being our own self advocates and contributing to the greater good, we’re missing huge opportunities to be a stronger, better industry.
And I think the stats have proven again and again that we need a diverse set of perspectives and life experiences to move through this world in a productive way.
Colleen Anunu: Yeah, but just to close that out, I mean this other thing that Tymika said that there’s so much about that that is highlighted right now because it’s consumer-facing. What about the flip side? What about the other piece?
Chad Trewick: Well, so Phyllis said, in front of a stage, in front of this group today, though, that we are operating within a colonial system and that hasn’t been called out. And our industry, for a very long time in a very public way, but the fact is that we, as an industry on this end of the value chain, have made gobs and gobs of money on the backs of – in most cases – an exploited producer pool.
And that’s totally normalized in our industry. We can talk about this for years and years and for 10 years I’ve been coming to Symposium we’ve been talking about this and the behaviors haven’t changed.
And so the fact that cheap coffee exists because we’re all free marketers and there’s a lot of supply of cheap coffee in the world, isn’t really making it okay, that its value is below its cost to produce in the majority of places. And yet the longer we go the more normal it is.
Colleen Anunu: I wish we had more time. But I just wanted to just say that if anyone has been keeping tally of how many time Phyllis Johnson’s name has been mentioned today? Okay. Thanks everyone. Thank you. Thanks.
Colleen Anunu: So there was a lot of different concepts that we talked about on that panel that day, and in the whole session and it came up throughout all the Re:co talks on that first day of the Re:co Symposium in April. And what I really want to focus on in this podcast interview with you three is this conversation around inequities between producers and coffee buyers.
So our panel had a real strong focus on the concept of structural inequality. And we examined how, when systems are set up to provide a certain result, and the behaviors within that system are normalized, then anything that we’re doing to counteract those behaviors or to achieve a different result are met with a lot of friction.
And you all provided such real examples and commentary about how those sorts of changes in behavior, or calling out of behavior, manifest in your daily lives.
And first, I just really wanted to say thank you for sharing that and your vulnerability and such truth telling about your lived experience on stage. I think that was very powerful for the audience and hopefully very powerful for the audience at home that just watched the panels and the talk. So thank you very much.
Tymika Lawrence: Thank you.
Colleen Anunu: I wanted to spend this interview talking about one of the last things that was mentioned on the panel because it didn’t get much air time after that. Chad said a thing and then dropped the mic and then we were all done. And so I really wanted to just focus on what Chad said about how the coffee industry really operates in this historic Colonial system and that we are working with an exploited producer pool and production base. And that these behaviors just have not changed over time. Maybe they’re wearing different clothing or they look different but it’s essentially still the same thing: producers in general a lot of the research shows – and if you talk to any producer, they would tell you that – coffee producers are losing. It’s a losing proposition.
So Chad saying that and insinuating that cheap coffee exists because of the system and the behavior is just normalized over time. That’s really what I wanted to focus on today and use the experience and expertise of you three to talk about what you’re seeing in the coffee industry now in terms of producer advocacy or companies that are really working to change behaviors and to change the system. What you’re seeing, what’s working, what isn’t and how can we be better advocates for the future of specialty coffee?
So how does that sound? I know it’s not the uncomfortable conversation, but maybe it sounds good to you?
Tymika Lawrence: I think it is a really difficult and uncomfortable conversation because oftentimes when I hear people in our end of the supply chain talk about coffee and about producers, I feel a little bit like I’m in the Twilight Zone. This is definitely informed by my experience as an immigrant and also like as a black person in America, but it does seem like the people who benefit from these structures are very bad at seeing them.
And so as much as I’d like to talk about higher level “what works and what doesn’t” – and there are people doing really good work and we should talk about that – there is a little bit, like, people don’t even realize the depth of how far this goes and how does how historically tied this is. And even the ways that they that we are talking about producers and coffee is so cheap and people are kind of talking about it, but not really.
It’s a very uncomfortable feeling when you know where these systems come from and it’s exactly like what Chad said. And so I think there’s a little bit of, like, needing to reckon honestly about the system that we’re even participating in before we can even really say like, “oh these companies are doing a great job” or “I think people could change.”
Realistically I don’t think people are engaging with the fact that this is a colonialist system. It doesn’t look that different than it did like 30 years ago. And that’s really troubling. With especially with how low the market’s been and that’s not even including inflation. Right? It’s kind of horrifying when you think about it.
Chad Trewick: Yeah, I would add to that. I think it’s really important like you mentioned Tymika, to think back to how and why coffee even spread around the world. And that was through these colonial exploitive and in some countries even slave conditions, where the responsible tactic to getting coffee to be spread around in a scalable way to multiple countries.
And if you look back 30 to 40 years, certainly nothing has changed on the producer side. What coffee represents in terms of a livelihood supporting opportunity has been flat or down for a whole generation.
And what’s really frustrating to look at, especially as a participant in this specialty coffee industry, is all of the wealth being generated and all of the connoisseurship being celebrated and all of the fancy getting fancier on this side of the values chain while there isn’t that same kind of benefit being enjoyed in the countries that frankly we depend on in order to even have an industry.
So it’s a really uncomfortable conversation to get back to that.
Tymika Lawrence: And honestly if I could if I could just add onto that. When you mention that for essentially for a generation it has not improved and has gotten worse for a lot of producers, you hear a lot about people wanting to keep youth engaged in the coffee supply chain, and I’m like “what?” We’re not doing things to make it better, but we should ask the youth to do it? Would your youth doing under those conditions?
And so it does feel so insane where it’s this idea where… And of course I love coffee and I want it to be around which is why I want us to do a better job. But certainly not at the expense of what is essentially generational poverty for people right?
One of the issues that coffee has is calling a thing “coffee.” Haha. One of the issue our entire society has is calling a thing by its clear name. And so it’s like I don’t feel comfortable feeling like we’re contributing to another generation of food insecurity or poverty for producers while definitely profiting off the fruits of their labor. So I think those are all really great points.
And I’d like us to get to the I think we have to do the reckoning thing. And like you said Chad, It’s really kind of… For me I’ve been able to make… I mean, I’m a college dropout that made a career out of coffee, right? And I’m immensely grateful and I would definitely like any career that has been fruitful for me. So we do need to see that also happening on the other end of the supply chain.
Colleen Anunu: Yeah, I’m wondering before we start thinking about some potential solutions or what we’re seeing from the buyer end, what roasters are doing in terms of talking about their relationships or even really changing their pricing policies or sourcing protocols, things like that. And really expanding on their relationships.
I want to quickly get a response from Chad from that comment. Basically after we were done with the panel, a lot of people were buzzing about “wow, I can’t believe someone was finally up there saying some of these things.” And to Tymika’s point, the issue that we have is calling it what it and assigning a heavy amount of weight to it.
And so I was just wondering Chad: what was some of the response from your industry colleagues that you know are arguably in positions of power to affect change here?
Chad Trewick: Well, I think what’s really important to recognize here is that these circumstance have become normalized.
And so unless we carefully work on our ability to see what’s happening around us on an ongoing basis, it all becomes noise, right? It all just becomes part of our background.
And I think that’s what happens to people the longer they’re in the coffee industry, the more normal it seems that we have this incredibly exploitive value chain.
And so what was really interesting for me was to gauge the responses of my industry peers who were in buyer roles for a long time and look at the expressions on their faces where they kind of knew what I was saying was truth, but they also felt, within their roles, beholden to generating shareholder value and maximizing profits for the company and achieving a low ‘cost of goods’ target.
And so you could see and sense the frustration on their faces as a result of having called out what’s happening here. It’s essentially it’s an exploitive supply chain or value chain, really only for the benefit of a few people on one side.
And I myself have benefited from those priorities, right? Like my former employer remunerated me to some extent based on my ability to achieve these low cost-of-goods-sold target. So, the better I bought – better being cheaper – the better the company did. And so for me that was a really challenging reality to confront.
But I would say after that session a couple people did come up to me to say “wow. I’m glad for you having said that. I think that was a big step.” Now what I’d really like for us to see in the future is a willingness to evolve beyond that and really start to recognize where there really is a win-win situation. And that isn’t going to be pretty, right? Not every place is going to be able to produce coffee efficiently enough that the market’s going to be able to pay for it. Not every place is going to produce a coffee that has a high enough quality that the market will pay a premium for it.
So I just think this dishonesty that we’re bringing to this conversation is going to bring about more upheaval and challenge. But it’s important to keep pushing this conversation because we have to evolve. We can’t just keep sitting back and watching it unravel before us.
Jenn Chen: So I don’t have any experience in green buying but I would say for the US market, at least in the industry, we need to have more education around the history of coffee. I know that when I entered the industry as a barista, I learned about processing and cupping and how to pull a shot but. No one told me about the history of coffee.
I had to go out and read the books. And even the books kind of glossed over some of the actual parts of colonialism. And that’s a shame. I think it should be in the education that we teach the new baristas and roasters. And we could definitely be doing better in that area.
I don’t think we can improve, at least in the US in terms of working on this structure if you don’t even understand it at all. So I say step one: put it in education.
Colleen Anunu: Yeah, I totally understand where you’re coming from. I think just that just offers such good reflection for me and some of the work that SCA has been leading in terms of skill-building workshops and focus on standards related to coffee quality, cupping.
And obviously it’s very important from a mechanical aspect of doing your job. But why isn’t understanding the historical and economic context of producers that you’re saying you have relationships with, why isn’t that part of a mechanic of doing your job as well? And I do, I totally agree with you Jenn. And that’s something that I also don’t see – whether it’s through private companies that are offering education or through the Association’s general education platform and skill-building workshops and certificate system. So yeah, I don’t think that’s not really part of it. And I’m with you.
Tymika Lawrence: I think that with the way that our market is set up, pressure needs to come from consumers. So I would certainly like to believe that everybody would do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. But if that were the case it would have already happened.
And I do feel like one of the things that is really good at moving a market in the right direction is the threat of losing customers because they feel like they don’t want to participate in a supply chain that that definitely isn’t as equitable as it should be.
So I’m wondering and I wonder all the time: what are the ways that we really engage consumers. Not because I don’t believe that there aren’t people who want to do the right thing, but it is very easy for us all to kind of say like, “well, I’m trying to do the right thing” and wring our hands and then move on to the billions of other things that we are responsible for.
And so what I think is the sense of urgency needs to come from somewhere. And I think when it’s coming from the consuming market, it feels the most urgent.
Chad Trewick: I really, really agree with you there Tymika. I think for a while I was thinking “oh let’s just write the consumers off” and try to get companies to see the need to increase their attention paid to this manner matter just for the sake of self-preservation, right? For companies to be able to guarantee a future supply chain, they need to change their behaviors.
But the reality is there keeps being more and cheaper coffee available from other countries and they’d rather go and buy it there then evolve their purchasing practices.
I have a fantasy little project in my head where we could actually work to increase consumer awareness to the fact that, unless it says otherwise and is proven otherwise by the brand that’s offering the coffee, coffee necessarily comes from environmentally and human exploiting conditions. There’s simply no other way for it to come about at scale. And I think that that – I tongue in cheek say – “mmm good to the last drop,” if that’s a part of your cup every morning, enjoying your daily coffee ritual. I feel like that would be maybe motivating.
Tymika Lawrence: I agree and I’m also interested that I do feel like I’ve seen in other markets that people have left it until it’s too late and the companies that are sourcing well and doing the right thing and up way ahead, right? I’m still not against the company education. We need a lobbying group for producers to lobby companies because it really is the long-term good business decision.
So one of the things I think about a lot with the market being really low is – and this is totally hypothetical – but if I’ve been working with a producer and I’ve been working with a roaster for 10 years and we have a relationship and they want to look out for two years or something specifically because the market’s really low, I might do it because I don’t have another choice. But there’s no way it doesn’t change the way I’m relating to this business. It’s just impossible, right?
And so I’m always like “coffee really a relationship business. Is it working?” Like, so you have a couple of windfall years. Okay, but what comes after that? And will those producer groups want to work with you again? Will you be able to source that product again, right?
Like these are all things I do think that will eventually actually start affecting people’s bottom lines. And so yeah, we are going to have a couple great years, but I’m really interested in seeing how long that lasts and what does that look like and what do these companies look like three years from now?
Chad Trewick: Yeah, I think that there are some growing producer voices out there. I think that one of the interesting things that we’re seeing as a result of the first world coffee producer forum meeting held in July of 2017, is the producing countries are getting their voices together and aligned and basically preparing to shout out loud “Houston, we have a problem. Hey, coffee market, we can’t keep acquiescing to and accommodating all of your incremental expectations and requests and requirements and certifications and everything else. And by the way, do all of this in a cost neutral way that isn’t going to pay for itself. We can’t do it anymore. Sorry.”
And so we’re seeing organizations like the World Coffee Producer Forum putting some governance and structure behind who and what they are, generating some interesting economic reports that they’re going to release in June or July of 2019. Also working with Promo Cafe that represents a block of, I think if I’m not mistaken, it’s 10 countries within the Mesoamerica central/South America/Caribbean region.
And these producing countries are basically getting together to say “we have to broadcast what’s happening here and really make sure the market knows and understands not just how vulnerable they are to raw material.” But frankly how vulnerable they are to being found as supporters of exploitive supply chain practices and behaviors. Because frankly there’s no way to avoid that. There’s frankly no way for most farmers to even ensure that they can pay a minimum wage to their employees. Let alone comply with Social Security and other laws.
So there’s growing voice on the producer side. There’s work being done toward the development of a Producer Guild within the SCA. But the fact remains that that group within our value chain, the producer group, is the most marginalized and yet put on a pedestal and exploited not just for the green coffee that they produce, but then their stories are exploited and sold and put on bags and packages. And they certainly aren’t seeing the benefit of that.
So we have to support these efforts that continue to include the producer voice.
Colleen Anunu: Yeah, I would love to expand on that real quickly Chad and pivot over to Jenn. And Jenn, as a coffee marketer and someone that has worked with coffee companies on product packaging or even brand image, this concept of marginalized coffee producers and the exploitation of the story and exploitation of even the purchasing practices… Like how novel are they if really are just within the same system. So I’m just wondering from you, what do you think are some tactics that will get consumers to take notice? If we think and maybe some other people think that it really needs to come from consumer activation or consumer pressure to hold companies accountable for their exploitative practices?
Jenn Chen: I think that it’s kind of difficult to only rely on consumers to put pressure on companies. We in the US at least, people don’t like paying more for things that they don’t know why they’re paying more. And if we don’t give them a reason then they’re just going to say “wow. This is a really expensive cup of coffee. Why am I paying for this? I’ll just go somewhere else.”
And so I think it needs to be both ends: consumer activated and business activated. But on the other hand, from the business end, I see a lot of people doing or companies doing lip service. Like Chad mentioned, putting producers on the bags or telling their stories, sometimes even saying words like “our farmers” in the same way as they would say “our farmers,” “our staff,” “our workers.” I saw that this week.
And the words that you use to talk about the people you work with, unless they are your employees at the farm, it is important. So if you can’t even do that part correctly, then I don’t know… you need to work on some stuff.
But in general, I think transparency is super important. For example, Juniors’ Roasted Coffee out of Portland started working on a transparency project and they have their cost of production and purchase for one of their coffees on the bag. So consumers can read about how much the company paid and the cost of what went into that coffee and why it’s being sold the amount that it is.
And then on the education side, they just worked on a comic book to talk about the cost of production and I think that’s kind of ingenious because it’s a different way of speaking about it. That’s a little more approachable for consumers.
And I think we just need to do a lot more of that, honestly.
Colleen Anunu: Yeah, that is really interesting. I mean the first thing that you said about, “consumers don’t want to pay more there and if they do they’re going to ask, why?” And we’ve conditioned coffee drinkers to think ‘look at this brand. Look at our fancy equipment. Look at all the care that we’re putting into the quality. And let’s talk about perceivable acidity and all of that’. And so essentially they’re like “okay, well, I’m paying more for this.”
But when it comes down to it, like how do we make these fundamental economic sexy in a way that this is something…like, these are fundamental economics. You have to pay more because it costs more. You have to pay more because I want to value this unpaid labor of a family in such a way that they receive a living wage or that they receive a minimum wage.
And so how do we just make that conversation a little more digestible? And so many people say we can’t do it. You can’t do it. It has to be simple. It has to be like a direct tie back. People don’t want to be thinking… And I’m not just thinking about that going to your average Blue Bottle. I’m thinking about: how do we make this accessible in a convenience store setting, even. Because arguably those are the types of retail environments that are going to move volumes and actually move the needle.
Chad Trewick: Yeah, I really liked what you said about transparency being a critical linchpin here, Jenn. I’m involved in a project with Emory University called the Specialty Coffee Transaction Guide. And so far it’s just on pilot phase but we have 21 data donors representing more than 10,000 coffee contracts, something like US$340m worth of coffee. So it’s more than just a drop in the bucket. And what we’re trying to do is report on market purchasing behaviors, first and foremost, so that we have an alternate price discovery tool to the New York C, the Commodities Market.
And so just getting some kind of familiarity around what a container of 84 point coffee coming from Nicaragua valued at according to this guide. And then we take that to the next level and start to generate reports related to what do these different prices being paid for certain countries mean in their local context.
So is A- at or below poverty level? Is it B- empowering the payment of minimum wage to families and any hired labor? Or is it C- a price that empowers and encourages farm reinvestment and a thriving production environment? And so a couple things there. Trying to make an easy to digest message out of what these prices mean.
And also I think the appetite for transparency in our industry is growing because I think a lot of people know and understand that it’s really the only hope we have is to understand where is this money going? Why are the producers so often at the losing end of this view here? Why globally is only 10 percent of our entire value generated staying in the country for coffee as produced.
And I think transparency, you hit a really, really important point there.
Jenn Chen: Thanks. I agree. And I really am looking forward to hearing more about this project, whenever there’s more info on it. This study is not specific to coffee, but it was conducted in 2016 by a company called Labelled Insight on food labels. And I think if companies knew how much transparency would benefit them in the long run people would be more on board.
So I’m just going to quote a few stats from it. If a brand showed label transparency – and that was consumer interpretation, so it’s like listing ingredients and certifications, process, that kind of stuff – 39 percent of the consumers that they surveyed, which is about 2,000 people, said they would switch toward the new brand because of that transparency. 56 percent so they said they would be loyal for life and, if you just show transparency in general, 94 percent of those consumers said they would be more loyal to the brand.
And those are all really big stats. I know right now we’re just talking about the general specialty market, but if you want to be more competitive, I would say try going for transparency and it does benefit the industry in the long run.
Tymika Lawrence: I mean there’s are fashion companies, for example, Everlane. I’ve never even bought anything there, but you can go onto their site and see how much they pay for something, what their margin is. It’s incredible. And they’re a company that’s doing really well for itself and they opened with transparency in mind and they have that.
And so they’ll say ‘yes, this cost this much money. Here’s why. Because we don’t want to participate in in fast fashion’. So these are industries that are heavily marginalizing people, causing food insecurity.
I agree with Jenn that if doing the right thing is not enough of an impetus, there’s a business reason. I feel like I said this during the panel, that as producers are getting more access to social media, it’s exactly like what Chad said, this is not something that you’re going to be able to run away from.
I really view us as being in a crucial point. Because it’s like we’re not going… we’re not going backward. We are only going forward and so companies really have to think “when the Great investigative journalism piece gets written, do I want to be on the right side of this?”
Because it really is that serious, and it’s that dire. And nobody’s giving it that urgency – at least not on a grand scale. And very often there are business benefits to doing the right thing. And so, no, you are not going to make the highest margin possible that you have ever made in your life. Right? And so we have to think what kind of industry do we want to be? Do we want to be the industry where it’s more important to make a little bit extra or is it okay for you to do the right thing?
And there is something that is sewn into the fabric of our country. It’s like rugged individualistic thing, where it’s like “well that guy can do his thing and be worried about his thing and I’ll worry about mine.” Except if producers were like that, we wouldn’t have coffee.
Like when you’re talking about an agricultural product that could never be grown here. There’s no way, that’s not the way that we should be participating in the supply chain.
Chad Trewick: Well, I really liked what you said. Two things: when the great investigative journalism pieces written, what I hope is uncovered and should be uncovered, is that we are an industry that has known and evaluated this same problem for decades. We have seen and watched this thing go but because of our oversubscription to “free markets will adjust themselves,” we’re still talking about it. And we’ve known about the hardships that coffee production too often lead to. We’ve known about coffee’s own role in contributing to the migrant caravan that’s generating lots of national media coverage and it’s coming from coffee-producing origins. We know about food and security.
We know about these things as an industry that has incredibly generous profit margins on this side, the consuming side of the value chain. And yet we have not changed anything.
So, I’m of the mind that we really need that piece to shed light on the really dirty underbelly of the coffee industry.
Colleen Anunu: Yeah, I mean if you read that Wall Street Journal article from today, and at the end of it, it’s really a portrayal of coffee companies that are able to spend significant amounts on extremely expensive build-outs and consumer “Willy Wonka-ism.” And calling out that green coffee costs are a very, very small percentage of the overall cost to sell that coffee at a specific price. And just thinking about “how can we sit by and watch the composite price of coffee diminish by 11 percent in one year?” It’s just I mean, it’s criminal.
We’re not obviously going to solve anything here, but I think that it’s reassuring to hear your perspectives that price transparency and just general transparency is going to continue in the near future, that there are companies that are doing it in other Industries and are benefiting from it. There are companies that are, actually not just publishing their costs and their supplier’s costs, but they’re actually saying, “this is our new business model: we’re going to take smaller margins. We’re going to sell more units. We’re going to return this to our investors. You want in? You want out?”
When the overall benefit is to redistribute the value that is generated at our end of the supply chain, I think that if we can get coffee companies to adhere blindly to 55 grams of coffee per liter of water. No, I think that at some point we can get coffee companies to put historic education into their training programs, to talk about economics of coffee supply chain, even at a high level. And to stop saying “our producers” and to start talking about real partnerships or allowing those partners to post on their own social media platforms. Or to really engage with them in ways that are super authentic and just prove that this is not lip service.
So talking to you guys made me sad at first but now I’m feeling more positive.
Do you guys have anything else you want to say before we wrap up?
Chad Trewick: I just really hope that there is a way… I mean, this is a very unsexy conversation. It flies in the face of all the appeal and this – I don’t know – there’s this image, or this aesthetic that has developed within our industry. And I want to find a way for this topic, instead marginalizing and alienating and “ooo, I don’t want to talk about that.”
I instead want this to be something that we’re excited to learn about and proud of admitting. Maybe? Is that too much?
Colleen Anunu: No, not too much.
Tymika Lawrence: No, I don’t think so at all.
And I want to leave people with… I want coffee to be the best version of itself. And I don’t care if that sounds cheesy. I still think that coffee is full of a lot of good people. It’s been my favorite industry to work in so far and that’s part of the re
ason why I don’t pull any punches. Because if I thought we were a lost cause I would put chuck up a couple deuces and walk away.
But it’s like I’m gonna keep pushing because I think that we can do it. And so people really need to think, like it’s exactly like what you said Colleen. Like green coffee costs aren’t that high, and so they need to examine where the internal pushback is from themselves for spending more on green.
Because it’s like, “are you running the rest of your business in the most shrewd way possible?” Is it a real impossibility for you to spend less money on coffee and make money? Why does it feel like such a big deal to spend more money on green?
And I think that this is a deeper conversation that unearths different things. But what is the real value you’re putting on producers work? Because what you say is one thing and the check that you write is another one.
Colleen Anunu: This has been the Re:co Podcast, brought to you by the members of the Specialty Coffee Association, and supported by Toddy. That’s it for the Changing Tides sessions recorded at Re:co Symposium this past April. It’s been a pleasure to host the podcast these past three episodes. I’m Colleen Anunu. Thank you so much for listening. Stay tuned to the podcast for episodes from Session 4 from Re:co: Harnessing the Power of Science.