Image 1 (The Independent, 2021)
The scandalous details behind coffee sourcing and coffee consumption are an old story. It is also one that people tend to forgive, forget and dismiss as they sip their 5th cup of coffee for the day at mid-afternoon. Coffee is the second most-consumed liquid in the world, only because water is necessary to sustain life. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, It is the second most traded commodity––when the first is petroleum, a fuel that sustains the industrial world.
The size of the coffee business is enormous. In 2020, the global coffee market was priced at over 102 billion in US dollars. The process requires a lot of workers and intermediaries. From cultivating, to harvesting, to drying, from packaging and shipping, blending, roasting, retailing, and consuming, it is a never-ending cycle. This supply chain cannot be broken as demand grows exponentially every day, month, and year. Coffee has become an addiction, though people deem it a lot harmless than other drugs. A few centuries back, in Mecca, coffee was believed to be a sinful drink because of its intoxicating properties. Today, it actually is for completely different reasons.
The first one is labor conditions and exploitation. From the early years of coffee bean plantations, coffee trade was dependent on slave trade. In Africa and other countries like Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia who make up the bulk of coffee production, slaves were picking the crop for the consumption of developed countries, having never tasted coffee themselves, under extremely poor living and working conditions, possible bodily harm and no compensation. In 2021, it would be logical to expect that these kinds of conditions have long remained in the past. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Image 2. (Flickr, 2019)
Workers might not be titled as slaves anymore but they might as well be. They are exposed to the sun and dangerous chemicals for long hours only receiving a laughable amount of the final coffee retail price and obliged to meet the same demand quotas even if prices are lower for a period of time. Basically, they have to keep working at the same pace even if they make less money. During coffee harvesting seasons they often take their children out of school for them to help, sometimes making for almost half of the workers on the field. Their education and healthy development are in danger.
In 2020, it was revealed that major coffee companies that are very well known around the world were using coffee beans sourced from plantations where child labor incidents happened. Undocumented eight-year-old children were working on these farms, exposed to all sort of hazards. The International Labor Organization has abolished child labor ever since 1919. Convention No. 138 clearly states that people who have not completed all compulsory schooling years cannot under any circumstances be employed. It is pretty understandable by anyone’s standards that 8-year-olds have not. The Convention on the Rights of the Child condemns the economic exploitation of children and aims to protect their right to have a carefree childhood and full education. However, most coffee giants just do not care enough to fully ensure that no children are involved in the coffee-making process, or that people are protected by hazardous materials and conditions as well as compensated the right amount for their labor. They do not care about the environmental havoc this massive coffee production is creating either.
Coffee bean cultivation has taken a worse turn for the last few years. Coffee used to be mainly grown under the shade of canopy trees and amongst other plants to minimize the spread of diseases that are harmful to the ecosystem. Today, deforestation of large areas has become the new norm. Producers are cutting trees to better expose their crops to the sun and increase profitability. The unrestricted access to light and water helps the farming process but harms biodiversity in the area. Forests are turned to coffee-producing plantations in the blink of an eye. At the same time, the growing number of coffee farms requires an even larger amount of water to operate. Solely one cup of coffee is made out of several liters of water. The agrochemicals and pesticides that are used in farming can pollute that same water supply.
Image 3. What Deforestation Looks Like ( Florian Plaucheur/AFP/Getty,2021)
This is only the environmental impact of the production process. Consumption is another story. The number of disposable coffee cups, plastic straws, and excessive ‘luxury’ packaging that make it to landfills or the ocean every year is impossible to measure. The coffee industry leaves a major print on the environment. The positive message regarding this issue is that more people have started to use their own to-go reusable cups for coffee to avoid contributing to the pollution. As the public becomes more environmentally conscious, governments involved in producing, importing, and exporting coffee grounds are obliged to form regulations for coffee companies and commodities that involve deforestation. During the COP26, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change that was held in Glasgow this year, world leaders promised to halt deforestation by 2030. The future practices remain to be s
What the public can do is choose sustainable and ethically sourced coffee, meaning coffee that is sourced in an environmentally friendly way and does not exploit people in the process.
What people sometimes lack of is empathy. It is disturbingly easy to turn a blind eye when one cannot see something happening right in front of them. It is the human condition. Sweeping truths that bother us under the rug to not deal with them.
There are people in the world that are paid 12 dollars for a 50-hour week. There are children in the world that never make it to school and are forced to work so this consumerism-crazed society can have its fill of specialty coffee. A huge amount of the plastics used in every step of the coffee-making and distributing process end up in the water, polluting the ocean and being mistaken as food from the sea creatures. Fish are washed up dead ashore accompanied by volumes of trash. It is an overwhelming problem.
Image 4. A landfill ashore. (Daniels/Alamy,2020)
Environmental contamination at times appears to be insurmountable and grim. The truth is that the public cannot singlehandedly transition out of plastic or one-use materials without the guidance of government and policy. What it can do for the environment is choose to recycle, repair and reuse. What it can do against exploitation practices is choose ethically sourced coffee.
A coffee ground company that ethically courses coffee will have a fair trade certification. That translates to a farmer who is paid fairly and is conducting his business in a fair manner, not exploiting his workers in the process. Purchasing coffee from a producer that follows the fair trade guidelines and making it known that higher standards need to be fulfilled to keep purchasing, will push more producers to become part of this group. This way farmers will be able to sustain their businesses, meeting the more expensive cost of sustainably sourced production and ethical labor. Workers will be compensated for their time and work with a respectable wage.
And coffee will not be such a guilty pleasure anymore.
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