LUCY ROGERS explores the ethics behind caffeine culture.
I love coffee. Like many other coffee-fiends, however, I often feel guilty for indulging in a morning macchiato. The coffee industry is frequently accused of being ethically dubious. As coffee culture becomes increasingly integral to twenty-first century life, the implications of our caffeine compulsion have triggered new discussions of how morally suspect coffee really is.
Our increasing national obsession has led to the ethical sourcing of coffee becoming more and more of a selling point. Large chains and independent stores alike are eager to win customers over by putting forward a squeaky-clean image. Even Starbucks, the Darth Vader of the coffee empire, has attempted to overhaul its somewhat questionable reputation by supporting projects that help the vulnerable and homeless. Perhaps most significant is their adoption of the Italian tradition of ‘caffé sospeso’, or suspended coffee. Essentially, a customer purchases an extra drink, which can later be claimed by someone in need. This has been the modus operandi of many independent cafés for years, and while the thought behind ‘caffé sospeso’ is commendable, in practice it’s not without problems. I previously worked in a café that offered this system, and although many generous customers contributed to advanced payments, I did not once see a coffee claimed. Of course this cannot be the case everywhere, but it does seem to suggest that the stigma surrounding the acceptance of this sort of help from strangers can prevent an otherwise wonderful campaign from being wholly effective. It is also undeniably the case that when huge global chains such as Starbucks introduce these initiatives, they are insignificant in comparison to the improvements that could be made if they changed their company policy. A free cup of coffee may not change lives, but higher wages and the payment of corporation tax might.
One of the key focus points for the ethical coffee movement over the last few years has been Fair Trade produce. Starbucks seem to tick this box, using Fair Trade beans where other chains and independents do not. Although this appears a positive step, critics have raised the point that selling Fair Trade coffee does not automatically equal ethical accountability. Both the Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance certification schemes have been accused of only meeting minimal social, labour, and environmental standards. A new alternative is Direct Trade, the go-to for smaller artisan coffee companies like Union. Union’s Direct Trade policy means that coffee houses work directly with farmers, investing in their smallholdings and paying them better prices for their beans. Not only is this of benefit to producers, but the emphasis on quality over quantity means tastier coffee for the customer (I can personally vouch for this – it’s delicious). Obviously, operating as such is not the answer to all coffee-related ills, but the idea of investing early in the production process is crucial to both the long-term sustainability of the coffee industry and the well-being of its workers.
Independent coffee shops often seem more proactive in encouraging such dedication to sustainable and fair coffee production. London, of course, has plenty of these to offer. The dominance of companies like Costa and Starbucks appears to have had an adverse effect; coffee culture means we know a Flat White from a Frappuccino, and thus we hold a growing interest in our coffee. This, in turn, has lead to the growth of independent cafés. These small cafés are generally seen as more ethically sound than their multinational chain counterparts, but is indie coffee really worth it to the consumer? Many independents charge far more than their conglomerate counterparts and it is often unclear what the extra cost actually goes towards. I enjoy a good coffee and am willing to pay a little extra for it, but, as a sceptical student living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, it seems a little unfair that a higher price tag holds no guarantee of a better tasting or more ethical product. However, caffeine consumers have been urged to switch to independent coffee shops after Ethical Consumer Magazine’s recent report revealed the true extent of the wrongs perpetrated by the three largest coffee companies in the UK. Maybe it is worth paying that extra fifty pence after all.
Despite recent developments in the ethical production of coffee, the industry remains a moral minefield. Grabbing a quick Costa latte does not make you the devil incarnate, but as coffee culture becomes an increasingly prominent part of our lives, we should definitely think before we buy. Previous generations gathered in churches, marketplaces, and pubs, but we are the children of the coffee shop era. It is up to us to more carefully examine the production of our favourite beverage and to ensure its long-term sustainability. Perhaps if we are more conscious of what goes into our coffee, the coffee industry can one day be described as one with a conscience.