Erasing the Pornography of Poverty

ttilogo6There is one thing stronger than all the armies of the world and that is an idea whose time has come.     
~Victor Hugo

The specialty coffee industry is the global leader in sustainability. At the SCAA in 2000, our keynote speaker, Paul Hawkin, author of The Ecology of Commerce stated he had consulted to over 500 corporations worldwide and the industry that was farthest along was specialty coffee. Those words have never rung truer than today, but how then do we take our generous work to the next level? This mission even more powerful when we realize only 25% of Americans donate to good causes and 80% come from individuals not corporations, government or religion.

People today often quit their careers to become corporate refugees; starting nonprofits with a goal of saving the world. John Wood left Microsoft to start Room to Read 13 years ago, and now has a 60 million dollar annual budget to distribute millions of books to 11 Asian countries. Excellent work, but most of us in our industry balance our day jobs with our community service.

With so many fantastic nonprofits in our industry, many of us want to support all of them. Cup for Education is also sending out books, paying for teachers and schools, Coffee Kids has been working for decades in origin countries in the areas of heath, education, and training and focusing on what the local community wants and needs. Grounds for Health continues to open up new countries for their cervical cancer clinics, a disease that August Burns declared will be gone in our lifetime. Cafe Feminino has helped women diversify with community gardens and micro credit loans. Food 4 Farmers is working on food security, Root Capital and Transfair, also 13 years old, are touching the lives of millions through fair wages, loans and literacy training. Then we have the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, CQI, SMBC, Coffee Lifeline, Rainforest Alliance, START, and the numerous other organizations working as hard as possible to lift farmers out of abject poverty.

New business models for global sustainability are growing rapidly. The face of social responsibility is no longer big sad eyes and a bloated stomach. We no longer sell guilt or pull on heartstrings to raise up all stakeholders in the chain from tree to cup. We believe every bean counts and now we believe every person counts and we view them with dignity and as equal partners. We will not let our partners starve.

A fast emerging business model is now the “B” corporation. This corporate structure benefits all, not just shareholders.  Think Paul Newman salad dressing. A fair market exchange drives a corporation and allows businesses to pursue a “triple-bottom line”: profits and environmental and social benefits. Excellent resources on why this is the future are Sustainable Harvest and Equator, both pioneers in sustainability, and B Corporations.

Partnering is an excellent solution to maximizing efforts. Mohamed Yunas won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for starting micro credit in Bangladesh. Starting as the lender to the poorest of the poor, now there are 300 million small loans out with an astonishing 97% payback. One of his B Corp business partnerships was made with Dannon Yogurt. Thousands of women received loans to open up yogurt stores. They paid back their loans, got on their feet, and increased the health of the community with the customized India style yogurt. And the benefits keep on giving. Access to credit is a monumental struggle for women. Female coffee farmers own less than 1% of land at origin. Micro credit is showing success with groups of women paying back principal, interest, and savings sometimes at $1.00 per week. It works.

A developing concept is coming from the National Cooperative Business Association in Washington D.C. Partners include organic women’s Guatemalan coffee co-ops, exporters, importers, roasters, distributors, added-value arts and crafts, IWCA and North American Retailer Co-ops. Complex? Yes, but of tremendous value to all the small partners.

“So,” asked Don Schoenholt, CEO of Gillies Coffee Company in Brooklyn, New York, “how do we engage the small and medium-sized businesses that make up 80% of the SCAA? How do we reach past the CEOs, Vice Presidents of Corporate Responsibility, Marketing Departments and the one person who makes the donation decisions?” We all know that the majority of coffee farmers live on less than $2.00 a day. I believe if given an easy platform, everyone would donate at least $1.00 per month and we would lift up everyone together. Whole Foods already asks all its employees to donate $1.00 per month to micro credit if they chose.

While brainstorming with Robert Fulmer of Royal Coffee in Emeryville, California, he came up with an idea for how small businesses can participate in the broader social good. Larger business could act as an aggregator for Mom and Pops and medium-sized companies like Signature, Equator, Bird Rock and Strong Tree, consolidating volunteers and donations into one space and help with their distribution. Janet Aguilar of Thanksgiving Coffee suggested a membership type of volunteering and donating, and the brainstorming continues… How do we leverage every person, penny, and pound of coffee to benefit all? With all of our small and medium-sized businesses, including every employee, working together we can and will impact the social and environmental issues on a grander scale. As Paul Katzeff said it is not just a cup but also a “just cup.”

We can shift our thinking from the pornography of poverty to erasing poverty. Let’s challenge ourselves to engage all of us and work together in a synergistic way that is efficient and that can be replicated instead of recreating the wheel, wasting energy and talent. We can and will declare ourselves as one of the global leaders in the Sustainability of the Planet. Send in your ideas to the Sustainability Council.

12_12 28-BKaren is the Co-Founder of IWCA and Track the Impact; she has been 23 years in coffee as founder and president of Elan Organic Coffee.

Suggested Reading