Have you ever met one of those idealists who wants to rush off and scale Mount Rushmore to throw protest banners over Lincoln’s nose the instant their sense of justice is even slightly violated? Well, I’m one of those. And I’m now engaged in an ongoing battle involving coffee beverages.
I didn’t always consider myself a coffee warrior. There was a time when I believed coffee was just a tasty and aromatic liquid that one must chug daily and in exorbitant quantities to experience pleasure and the illusion of being wakeful. But my views changed one day when my loving gaze fell on a caramel café latte and I thought about where this nectar of the gods actually comes from.
My first guess was trees. I was close — coffee grows on bushes, primarily in Brazil, Columbia and Vietnam. Around 1000 CE, coffee was introduced to Arabia, where coffee bushes remained a closely guarded treasure until 1616. That’s when the Dutch successfully swiped a coffee bush and brought it to Europe. Demand for Java quickly rose as affluent Europeans gathered in cafes and slurped cups of Joe. Voltaire reportedly consumed 50 to 72 cups per day, and to support Voltaire’s habit, coffee cultivation was outsourced to various colonies where, in many cases, it’s still grown.
Today, coffee is a Goliath industry — petroleum is the only commodity that ranks higher than coffee in terms of dollars spent in trade. According to Coffee Universe, over 400 billion cups of Java are consumed each year, making it the world’s most popular beverage. And why not? Coffee stimulates the brain, is an integral cultural artifact and (arguably) tastes heavenly.
The problem is that there’s a dark side to coffee. For one thing, coffee-growing has big and ugly impacts on the environment. Among the things it causes are destruction of habitats, deforestation, pesticide pollution and degradation of soil and water. Add to that the fact that a single cup requires more than of 35 gallons of water to produce (often in countries where drinking water is already scarce) and you have a large-scale and far-reaching environmental problem.
Java raises social justice issues, too. Corporations make billions selling coffee, but the farmers that actually exert the time and effort to grow it typically see very little of that money. Often, farmers lack direct access to coffee markets and have little choice but to sell their coffee to better-connected middlemen — at a fraction of the price the middleman will receive and an even smaller fraction of what the end seller receives. For many growers, the result is a cycle of poverty, debt and sweatshop-esque working conditions.
I personally don’t like any of those things, and unfortunately there’s no easy solution to the problems surrounding coffee. But there are some things a student can do without sacrificing coffee and all of its magical benefits. In my case, I’ve decided to start buying fair trade coffee rather than the other stuff. Fair trade certified coffee cuts out exploitative middlemen by replacing them with cooperatives that offer farmers a fairer price for their harvest. Fair trade coffee is also fairly easy to find on campus, if you simply watch out for the label. Some of the places offering fair trade coffee in Ann Arbor are Beansters. Expresso Royale, and Bert’s.
And, according to the Organic Trade Association, 78 percent of all fair trade certified coffee sold in the United States is also certified organic, meaning that it’s grown using more environmentally sustainable methods. For instance, organic coffee is grown without artificial pesticides and with sustainable crop rotation that mitigates problems like soil and water erosion.
Our consumption decisions and the businesses we support have real and noticeable effects on other people and the environment. Drinking a cup of fair trade coffee or writing a viewpoint about it doesn’t right all the wrongs in the world. But it hopefully does make a tiny difference, and even tiny differences can really add up in the long run. I now drink my coffee with a little milk, no sugar and a sense of pride from knowing it got into my cup the right way.
Brian Flaherty is an associate editorial page editor.