Eliana Lambros

On coffee consumption: Brewing a better cup

February 7, 2023

Whether it’s a caramel vanilla iced latte or a cup of black coffee, it is safe to say that you or someone you know is connected to coffee on a personal level. 

In capitalist America, coffee’s influence is observed by the countless coffee shops on street corners and the fact that caffeine addiction is more than just a joke, as 80-90% of U.S. children and adults regularly consume caffeine, according to a Dec. 2011 study.

Access to coffee has been made convenient, exciting and commonplace in our society, but the truths behind its production are not nearly as widely recognized. 

In order to make the most ethical decisions about our coffee, there must be accurate and explicit information available regarding coffee production.

Brief History of Coffee

Though we now fill espresso-based drinks with flavored syrups and top them with whipped cream, coffee’s humble origins go way back. 

The roasted and fermented beans we love today have their roots in 13th century Arabia, according to an April 8, 2013 PBS article

In the 1600s, European-owned coffee farms began to cultivate in places such as Ceylon, the Caribbean, Central America and Brazil, the PBS article stated. 

During the lead up to the American Revolution, patriots made the switch from tea to coffee, according to the PBS article. Soon after that, coffee was being traded globally. 

Fast-forward to today and coffee is the perfect pick-me-up, ritual beverage and best friend of the crazy, busy consumerist. 

It wasn’t until recently that I realized the lack of transparency surrounding the origins of our favorite stimulant. 

There is too much hidden information regarding coffee labor and the geographic origins of our coffee. 

Unfair Work Conditions and Child Labor 

In Brazil, one of the world’s largest coffee-producers, workers undergo 15-hour work days and receive payment that is well below minimum wage, according to a Sept. 28, 2022 report by the Bureau of International Labor Affairs. 

Tolerance of the long hours and minimal pay is due to the desperation workers have to survive, as there are limited ways those in poverty can receive enough money to feed, clothe and keep their families safe. 

Coffee farmers sometimes earn as low as 1-3% of the retail price of their coffee, according to a Sept 24, 2020 article by The Borgen Project

Due to the constant fluctuation of coffee prices, some farmers do not earn a living wage that adequately supports the survival and health of their families, according to The Borgen Project.

Last year was a perfect example of the fluctuation of coffee prices due to supply and demand. 

As a former Starbucks barista, I observed the rise in prices of coffee drinks followed by a decrease in overall sales and more people remarking, “I think I’ll just make my coffee at home, it’s cheaper.” 

In addition to exploitative working conditions, major coffee growing regions such as Brazil, Vietnam and Côte d’Ivoire have high amounts of child labor, whether it be through human trafficking or out of the necessity to earn a living wage, according to The Borgen Project. 

One investigation of various coffee farms found child labor practiced on all of the seven farms connected to Nespresso and the five connected to Starbucks, according to a Mar. 1, 2020 article by The Guardian

Since then, Nespresso and Starbucks have both announced that they have a zero-tolerance policy for child labor. Starbucks also stated that it is taking additional steps, such as increasing third party inspections of its coffee farms, to ensure its coffee is sourced in an ethical way, according to a Mar. 1, 2020 statement from the company

The Geography of Coffee 

Although coffee is grown in parts of Hawaii, the climate in most of the U.S. is unfavorable for coffee cultivation. Because of this, the U.S. imports the most coffee of any country in the world, according to a Sept. 29, 2021 USA Today article. 

A small handful of farmers in California have grown coffee, but the price sits between $50 and $80 for a 5-ounce bag, and researchers from the University of Florida are experimenting with coffee crops in Florida, according to the USA Today article. 

Despite this, the large majority of coffee is grown outside the U.S. and coffee giants like Starbucks and Dunkin’ import their coffee beans from all over the world, according to a Jul. 30, 2019 video from Insider.     

So, although “America runs on Dunkin,” Dunkin’ itself runs on imported coffee beans. Their marketing, and the marketing of many American coffee chains, is not always appreciative of the coffee’s origins. 

The various regions the coffee is from should be included on every label. Coffee gives a sense of local community and it should give one of a global community as well. 

Due to the lack of recognition for the individual small coffee farmers, coffee turns into another consumerism ploy. It shifts away from the purpose of bringing people together to just obtaining enough caffeine to get through the day. 

In order to truly appreciate this sacred morning ritual, consumers need to have information surrounding how and where their coffee was produced. Identification is a large part of connection. 

Widespread Change

I believe all coffee on the market should be Fairtrade Certified. 

This means coffee trading is executed in a fair, safe way and that more opportunities are provided to disadvantaged farmers and consumers, promoting their well-being, according to the mission statement of Fairtrade International. 

Now, I am not going to preach that everyone must drop their current cup of coffee for one that is Fairtrade Certified because this wouldn’t acknowledge the socioeconomic barriers surrounding food and beverages in the United States. 

It is simply not realistic to say that all U.S. residents can purchase or have access to Fairtrade coffee. Not everyone has the privilege to choose where they purchase their coffee from and do a background check on the production chain. 

It is also a privilege to live in a place where families do not have to turn to child labor in order to earn a livable wage. Child labor is not a problem that can simply be solved by buying certain coffees.

Creating a safer and more ethical coffee trade goes way beyond what’s inside our stainless steel tumblers. The issues behind the coffee industry must be brought into the public sphere. 

Awareness is the first step to change. 

We must ask questions about coffee production and push large brands to provide information regarding their actions in the coffee trade. With facts presented in a transparent way, we as consumers can make well-educated decisions about where we get our coffee. 

So, if you are able, vote with your dollar towards brands that insure ethical and fair trade. And little by little, bean by bean, the coffee trade will be more representative of the love we all have for our morning cup of joe.

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