Traceability, Certification & Elitism

I just finished reading this excellent article in the New York Times. It's inspired by the tragic garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, but the implications are much broader, and of course I naturally thought of coffee when I read this:

"Mysterious origins are a hidden cost of cheap things....To have money today is often to acquire the right to know which person knitted your sweater or which farm bred the pigs in your chorizo. To be without money is to buy from a placeless netherworld and to be told to take it or leave it, no questions asked. 

It's a strange reversal. For most of history, the poor would have eaten the local pigs and known the origin of their socks, and the rich had better access to a global marketplace. But changing elite tastes and the relentless efficiency of supply chains have slowly inverted tastes: In many categories, the poor now buy from the exotic unknown, and the rich insist on what can be traced..."

My friend Tim Castle wrote recently about the sloppy surface-skimming that characterizes media coverage of various coffee certification schemes, but in my view he (uncharacteristically!) doesn't go far enough in the case of the Fair Trade and Organic certifications, which are rife with corruption and abuse. More interestingly still is what, if I'm not misreading it, looks like an unqualified endorsement of the so-called Direct Trade model. 

Returning to the themes raised in the Times article, here's a representative single origin offering from a highly-touted Third Wave roaster. The asking price - nearly $28.00 per pound* is quite typical of their offerings. 

Now considering that many estimable specialty coffee companies are profitably selling stellar single-origin coffee for $14.00 or less per pound, one wonders what the pie chart disclosing exactly who gets what from the $28 (which presumably any self-respecting Direct Trade roaster would be happy to share as part of their much-touted transparency and fairness ethos) would look like. It certainly doesn't have to do with "direct" trade per se as larger companies like Starbucks, Peets, Illycaffe and the like trade much more directly (that is to say, with fewer intermediaries needed and no need for exporters to act as tour guides and educators or importers to act as banks and shipping facilitators) than do smaller players who aren't buying all of their coffees in full containers. Maybe it's the cost of amortizing all of those farm visits, glossy web sites and Cup of Excellence bids over so few pounds that accounts for the doubling of costs to the consumer.....

More to the point though, this kind of pricing drives home with a vengeance the idea that artfully-roasted coffee is a luxury item for special-occasion consumption only - unless you are rich. And while the Times piece focuses primarily on clothing, the effects of a luxury pricing strategy on an extremely pershisable product tend to be more disastrous, in that the odds of it being sold stale are greatly increased. I still vividly recall being struck at the modest prices, quick turnover and shared sensibility about ripeness and quality I saw at cheese mongers all over France, followed by the jarring contrast of seeing the same cheese at triple or quadruple the price at my local Whole Foods, often in sorry condition, and of course not selling because at the price, and with no sampling or educational effort, a vital everyday foodstuff had been turned into a luxury buy. 

At the end of the day, I think there's more to be learned and emulated from the truly vertically-integrated approach of Brazil's Café Bom Dia than from any of the current crop of elitist roaster-retailers. Perhaps the "Fourth Wave," when and if it occurs, will be based on farmers deciding what constitutes fair and/or direct trade and taking the means of production and adding of value into their own hands. 

* They've chosen to set retail prices in grams [coffee worldwide is bought by pound] - which is at least more original than the dominant Third Wave pricing strategy of charging a usurious full pound price for a 12 ounce valve bag. 

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