Human Dignity and the Global Coffee Industry 

Robusta, Arabica, Hawaiian Kona, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, Philippine Liberica, Indonesian Sumatra Mandheling, Tanzanian Peaberry…the list of varieties of this ubiquitous caffeinated delicacy goes on and on. 

The simple delight of enjoying a cup of coffee is a largely universal experience with over 1 billion daily consumers around the world. In the United States alone, 64% of Americans begin their day with a cup of coffee. The global coffee industry estimated a value of over $102 billion USD in 2020. Based on this wide appreciation for coffee coupled with the fundamental economic concept of supply and demand, it is no surprise that big name coffee chains and quaint specialty cafés alike often charge upwards of $3 per cup. However, the disconnect between the growers and consumers is concealed by the misleading tactics of marketing.  

The role of packaging semantics in the coffee industry is akin to the jargon on other grocery labels such as “free range” or “non-GMO” which give extensive leeway for interpretation per USDA regulations. As inherent altruists, humans are drawn to the idea of contributing to something positive by selecting a slightly less convenient option at a higher price that effectively supports a good cause. This becomes muddled as nebulous advertisement masks the realities of the coffee industry with buzzwords such as “ethically sourced,” “organically grown,” and “fair trade” dominating the coffee industry. The words themselves sound great in theory, but the degree in which these terms are practically implemented and regulated per production standards are not always as fair as they are portrayed. 

My growing interest in this topic began with an introduction to the ethics of the global coffee industry during my undergraduate university course in agricultural biology. Each unit highlighted various aspects of plant science in relation to its historical origins, present-day farming practices, and sustainability within the consumer market. A particular assignment within the unit on coffee led to my analysis of the “Black Gold” documentary which unraveled international human rights and labor rights concerns as well as unethical trade practices endured by coffee farmers and their families in Ethiopia.

A more recent documentary with a similar theme equally caught my attention. At the suggestion of a colleague, I viewed “The Source: The Human Cost Hidden in a Cup of Coffee.” Filmed in Chiapas, Mexico, this follows the reality of coffee laborers working along the Bean Belt of South America. Specifically, it exposed the labor of children as young as seven years old who harvest and manually transport coffee cherries in the fields alongside their parents. The youths’ labor goes without just compensation and not only inhibits them from school but will likely cause negative effects to their bodies; yet, their work provisions the coffee beans to many of the leading brand name companies. Unfortunately, these practices–although typically prohibited or even illegal in numerous jurisdictions–are still tolerated and continue without legal ramifications. 

Big name coffee brands are popular for many reasons including convenience, taste, or the memory they evoke. This standard may not change overnight, but small, conscionable efforts can create a resounding impact. For example, shopping locally for coffee beans can be greatly beneficial, as it is for most products. Although coffee is inevitably grown overseas, local small businesses are able to establish a direct working relationship with individual farmers, and thus ensure that workers are being treated with dignity. Another advantage of supporting our local small business is transparency. 

My favorite local coffee shop has a page on their website dedicated to transparent pricing for each lot of their beans and a detailed explanation of their efforts to fairly compensate their farmers and workers–they even utilize sustainable packaging methods for transportation and selling. Overall, while these are just a few ideas, it is important to be involved in the ethical sourcing of our food and beverages; as a result, we can make a decent impact by being mindful of the labor that goes into what we consume. 

Published on: January 7, 2022

Written by Caitlin Velasco Banez, Advocacy Intern at World Youth Alliance Headquarters