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Who Watches The Watchers? Towards a Politics of Accountability in Specialty Coffee

A few weeks ago on Instagram, I shared some thoughts concerning the common sentiment that many of us have like said and/or heard when discussing coffee supply - namely, that it’s complicated or confusing.

Of course, I don’t disagree that the basis of supply is confusing at first glance. Understanding multiple international markets, navigating currency conversions and fluctuations, and accounting for additional costs placed on farmers in the export and milling process are just a few things that make it far from a straight forward subject. Nonetheless, though it is confusing in many ways, it is possible to understand. Indeed, tens of thousands of people work within and around these issues everyday, managing minutiae amongst a mountain of data.

What concerns me isn’t that we acknowledge the coffee supply system as complicated, but that our choice of the word can be used as a means to escape the responsibility incumbent on us work to understand this system. After all, it’s not only the system that we operate within, but also one that inherently works to benefit us on the consumer side. In essence, when we use words like complicated or confusing, it suggests that there is a someone else out there who doesn’t find the system complicated and confusing who will do that work for us so we can focus on the roasting and the brewing and the tasting. The fun stuff. The tasty stuff.

My question is this — how much better would our supply system be right now if for the last twenty years none of us had been willing to accept the system as complicated and leave it in the hands of someone else to deal with or explain to us? What if we had always felt we had an authentic and real responsibility to know more, and had sought this out at every turn? Would our system be better, and would we all as individuals be more informed about how the system works? It seems like the answer has to be yes.

Where does one start though? For many in the Global North, we rely on those closer to the supply side, typically roasters and importers, and perhaps even to the level of the exporter or producer, should we be able to connect with them. The average consumer though, holds a roaster, green buyer, or importer as their closest point of contact to the supply side of the coffee value stream.

To our credit as an industry, the modern transparency movement is seeking to do better by these consumers through sharing more and more information with them, generally around the subject of pricing. An outcropping of this has been an increasingly common call for consumers to demand information from roasters — that they publish their prices paid as close to the producer level as possible and that in so doing, reassure consumers that they are doing their best in creating just and fair economic exchanges.

An Overburdened Consumer

For those who participated in Semilla’s online course “An Anti-Oppressive Approach to Coffee Value Streams,” you’ll remember that I referenced and shared the article “Problems with Firm-Led Volunteer Sustainability Schemes: The Case of Direct Trade Coffee” in which the Direct Trade models of multiple “founding firms” of specialty were discussed, via anonymous interviews with staff of these organizations.

Two of the main takeaways from this article for me were the following:

  1. Soft Power.

Many members interviewed who worked for Direct Trade firms with an openly stated commitment to equitable and transparent sourcing commented on the profluence of new brands using the language of Direct Trade without the same requisite commitment to ethical practices. The feeling was, amongst those interviewed, that there wasn’t much that could be done to remedy this aside from the use of “soft power” of leading by influence and convincing others to do better. In fact, multiple interviewees explicitly stated their reluctance to “call out” other companies they felt used their language but didn’t follow suit with right action. Without a formal enforcement agency, in other words, companies were left to hope others did the right thing but no way to show when they didn’t.

2. Burdening The Consumer.

The research paper also considers the advent of the transparency report as a means of creating some form of proof that companies were living up to their stated values. The authors of the paper reflect on data taken from Fair Trade research in which many consumers reported feeling “overburdened by detailed information.” The problem for the authors is that, because there is no set standard on how Direct Trade operates due it being defined by individual companies, it becomes too difficult for the consumer to act as a proper monitor of best practices. In essence, the goal posts are moving too much, and as such, the consumer can’t tell who is doing “right” versus “wrong.” “We therefore argue,” ends the paper, “that the individual consumer may not be an appropriate actor for such monitoring and evaluation responsibilities in a regulatory standard-setting process.”

Who Leads?

The conclusion here is one that I think should be interesting to all of us in specialty coffee. In our attempts to distill the “complicated” part of coffee supply into a digestible format, and this prove we’re doing the work well, we’ve managed to simply push this complication closer to the consumer in a way that renders our efforts moot. Rather than improving our collective understanding of the complications, we’ve simply collated data in such a way as to wash our hands of it.

Let’s connect this as well with these ongoing calls for the consumer to demand price transparency. While I understand the emphasis behind this, is this not again placing an undue burden on the consumer? Even if the consumer gets an accurate response from their barista during a busy rush on what the price per lb was on their Colombia coffee (highly unlikely), does that solve the problem? If we ask roasters or importers on their Instagram pages or via email to explain their pricing and they send us FOB or farmgate without any additional information, does that guarantee the information is true and/or complete with context?

An example may illustrate this well. You could ask me, an importer, what FOB price Semilla pays and I will happily share this with you. But I will also take the time to include that coffee in Rwanda is actually sold FOT (freight on truck) not FOB (freight on board) as it’s a landlocked country. I could stop there, and the average consumer would be satisfied, but the responsibility that’s incumbent upon me is to go further and explain that farmgate prices are set by the National Agricultural Export Board, and as such, even if I increased my FOT to $10/lb USD, it would not be a net gain for the small producers who bring cherries to the washing stations. More on how Semilla is approaching that this year below.

As can be seen in the example, personal responsbility plays a huge role here. I have to choose to responsibly share as much information as possible to those asking the question, even though most wouldn’t know better even if I didn’t.

In my position or a roaster’s position, or really any position above the final consumer level, we fundamentally hold a power advantage over said consumers, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not.

Asking those with less knowledge and power to police those with more of both, is inherently a problematic solution. Consumers by definition do not have the access to the information that they seek. They must go through us to achieve it. They trust us to be leaders and to be deeply connected to our work, such that when they purchase from us they don’t have to interrogate us about our buying practices.

Creating a New Culture

In other words, transparency and the publication of prices needs to be taken as a bare minimum. The real work that needs to be done is, in my opinion, more ideological in nature. It is one that seeks to create a new industry culture in which all of us - every participant in the coffee value stream, no matter their involvement - is encouraged to speak freely and to ask questions that hold the system accountable that we work with in.

Currently, I would argue that there are very few coffee professionals, let alone consumers, who feel comfortable asking direct questions to specific companies about how they do business. There’s a tangible sense that if begin to ask members of the supply chain who are assumed to have more knowledge and experience and connection, that we may be overstepping our boundaries. This, indeed, was present in the article referenced above. Even when the interviewed roasters felt there was a problem in another companies sourcing or marketing practices, they were loathe to speak up about it.

Enter 2020, the moment where we’ve all begun to learn the difference between a call out and a call in. This distinction is one that has come up specifically in regard to racism and white privilege, and I believe we can all agree that specialty coffee cannot be considered free from these problematic dynamics.

Indeed, our desire to rely on “soft power” to negate injustice and our eschewal of confronting said injustices within our industry is a textbook example of white privilege in action. First, it is a refusal to engage in “conflict” in the form of hard conversations that must be had, because of an ongoing politics of respectability in which we cherish our perception of being kind and “nice” over asking hard questions that may make for uncomfortable conversations or lead us to be socially or professionally ostracized. Second, it’s an implicit recognition that as majority white members of the coffee value stream, when we see unethical or unjust behaviours being committed don’t necessarily harm or endanger our own livelihoods. As such, it’s possible to turn a blind eye, and in so doing, maintain existing power dynamics that benefit us.

bell hooks and a Politics of Accountability

One insight that I’ve found particularly important here comes from the famous Black writer and civil rights activist, bell hooks. In her work, she’s made the distinction between our current societal framework that functions as a “culture of blame” in which the identification or naming of problems is attached to punitive ideas of right or wrong. In other words, that if we are “called out” for doing something wrong, we will face judgment or castigation for our acts, and that this will lead us to be deemed as “bad” or fatally flawed in some way.

What’s needed, according to hooks, is a reframing. Rather than functioning from the perspective of this culture of blame, we need to move towards a “politics of accountability” in which we recognize our need to be accountable to ourselves, to one another, and to our values. As she explains: “Accountability is a more expansive concept because it opens a field of possibility wherein we are all compelled to move beyond blame to see where our responsibility lies.”

This is where we can refer back to this resistance to “call out” other companies, cited by the interviewees in the paper above. In that case, no one wanted to call anyone out because as a part of our culture of blame, doing so would imply they were bad or failed or flawed. However, were this done within the framework of a politics of accountability, we wouldn’t be stating that any specific company is “bad’ per se, just that they are being asked to take responsibility for their work, and to reflect on whether they are doing the work they way they say they are.

When we put this thought together with the notion that there is no external authority functioning within specialty to ensure that words meet actions, it seems incredibly important that we seek to move, together, towards a politics of accountability in which asking questions about how we all do business is not written off as an attack or a callout, but rather is a welcomed part of holding us all responsible to the justice we say we seek to serve.

Fundamentally, this accountability is to one another within the consuming side, but holding one another accountable here — I would argue — has the largest impact on those in the the most precarious position in the system and those who hold the whole system up — the coffee professionals of the Global South.

If we are to see real change in this system in our life times, we will all have to become more comfortable being held accountable for HOW we work and WHY. And we will have to not only a accept when these questions are asked of us, but in fact, encourage that they be asked.

In this time when we are discussing more and more how we can seek to be anti-racist in our daily lives, there is no better opportunity than by creating a commitment within our companies to speak up against injustice in the coffee supply stream that relies upon and too often exploits the labour and life of the Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities worldwide.

Price paid is the minimum, and “tipping” or paying higher prices for coffee can’t be considered enough as long as this system continues to function on embedded power imbalances that tilt the risk and danger towards communities of colour in the Global South.

What Does Accountability Look Like?

It starts with us normalizing accountability. Collectively, some thoughts I leave for us are the following. And though they may seem pointed towards certain members of the supply chain, it’s important to remember that these questions are for all of us, no matter our station.

  • How do we work, and why?

  • Who are our partners. and how well do we know them?

  • How proximate are we to our partners?

  • How connected are we to the harvesting, processing, milling, exportation, and roasting of the coffee we buy?

  • What do we say we achieve? How do we achieve it?

  • How much of what we say about the coffee we work with is verified/verifiable?

  • How do we hold ourselves accountable?

  • What does justice in coffee mean to us? What are we willing to do to make sure it’s done?

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