In the mid 1970’s, when coffee sold in the supermarket at $2.00/pound, it was no easy task to sell a pound of quality coffee at $4.00/pound. Customers would say, “Why should I pay twice as much for coffee?” Then, flavored coffee was invented. “Oh, let me try some of that Swiss Chocolate Almond.” Before they knew it, they were buying Kenya AA. It did not require a world-class cupper to know that those flavorings obscured the subtleties of great quality coffee. However, flavored coffees provided a bridge for consumers, who eventually tried the real thing and became today’s sophisticated coffee buyers.
Led by a small cadre of coffee idealists, America’s coffee palate evolved from the bowels of the greasy spoon to 5-star sophistication, in the span of a generation. The idealists grew in numbers and, as they searched for the best quality coffee, they wandered deeper and deeper into the mountains. Those wanderings placed middle class idealists in proximity with deeply impoverished coffee growers, a recipe destined to change the coffee trade. Specialty coffee had begun its rendezvous with sustainability.
At first, the idealists were characterized (by coffee insiders) as outsiders, rabble-rousers, socialists, and even communists. However, as time passed, coffee sales associated with sustainability soared, and even the insiders realized that sustainability was good for business.
That is when the trouble began.
Declarations of sustainability, in all its forms, began to appear on packages, advertisements, and year-end reports. It was no longer fashionable to sell just plain specialty coffee. Coffee had to have a cause. Sustainable coffee became an effective sales tool for marketing departments. Supermarket aisles became filled with posters, photographs and coffee bags replete with labels promoting sustainability at origin. Sustainable marketing has been so successful, that consumers intent on improving the world with their purchases, believe that all they have to do is buy a certain labeled coffee and their connection to poverty is resolved. However, the trek from the supermarket to origin is an exercise in irony. At origin there is still poverty.
The problem advertisers confront in the supermarket is that consumers spend less than 30 seconds to make a purchase decision. That does not allow a whole lot of time to explain the complexities at origin, and furthermore, too much information about poverty could sour a sale. So, marketing departments use clever sound bites and unrealistic platitudes to capture sales from well-intentioned consumers. The results indicate that marketing sustainable coffee is good for business. But, sound bite marketing does a disservice to consumers, struggling communities at origin, and to the sustainability movement itself.
Consumers interested in sustainable products are interested in making a difference with their purchases. They want to hear the truth about life at origin, with all its complexities, and they want to know the role their coffee plays in it. It may not be possible to tell that truth in 30 seconds, but over time, consumers can be educated to the realities and complexities at origin.
Coffee merchants know, or should know, the constellation of efforts required to deliver coffee from seed to cup. They know, or should know, the deep poverty experienced by coffee-farming families. Marketing departments have numerous tools at their disposal to sell coffee. Using sound bites to sell ‘sustainable coffee’ is the equivalent of using the same poverty that the sustainable movement is trying to overcome, as a tool to sell more coffee.
The goal of a sustainable coffee economy will only be attained if all participants in the trade are accurately informed about the realities at origin and act in accordance with their values. Consumers need to be knowledgeable and active participants. Coffee merchants need to distinguish between selling coffee and promoting sustainability. Swiss Chocolate Almond may have worked in the 70’s, but candy-coated marketing will not work for sustainability. In order to invite consumers to confront the complex issues behind poverty at origin, merchants need to look for a more sophisticated bridge to sustainability.
That bridge will not be found by glossing over the truth. To get to the answers, hard questions must not be avoided. It was the very proximity of specialty coffee and its confrontation with reality at origin that gave birth to sustainability. Those unavoidable questions were the original driving force behind it. If specialty coffee is going to be truly committed to sustainability, it is going to have to return to sustainability’s roots.
Marketing departments need to educate consumers, instead of simply selling them sustainability. After all, sustainability is not just about opening minds at origin, it is about opening minds in the supermarket, as well.
While Bill Fishbein is better known as the founder of Coffee Kids, he created The Coffee Trust (www.thecoffeetrust.org) in 2009 as a catalyst for innovative development at origin. The Coffee Trust® works in the Ixil region of Guatemala on grass roots development projects that focus on education, health care, food security and economic development.