The UK coffee market is full of beans. By 2018 there’ll be 20,500 outlets, and the artisanal independent shops with baristas and Bunsen burners are excelling fastest. They’re giving the big guys – Costa, Caffè Nero and Starbucks, which arguably created the market – a run for their money.
Ethically it may seem a no-brainer: the activist stance is that corporate coffee culture is out to destroy the high street. You get brownie points for supporting local business, too. The New Economics Foundation has shown that there is a positive multiplier effect for money spent on local business and that it is socially useful. Until recently, multinationals that spearheaded the latte revolution were accused of failing to filter back their good fortune to poverty-stricken coffee farmers. Arguably, Fairtrade helped the coffee giants, albeit as a tiny part of their business. There was the potential to bring huge volumes of ethical coffee to market quickly and to help thousands of farmers worldwide. The jury is still out on how effective it has been.
It is easy to dismiss Fairtrade (as many do). The world coffee price is not in freefall and demand (particularly for arabica) is high. But during the late-90s coffee crisis the price plummeted due to oversupply. For every £2 in aid received by Ethiopia, £1 was lost through lower coffee prices. Fairtrade, with its price guarantee, was a lifeline for farmers.
Artisan coffee entrepreneurs find Fairtrade limiting. Union Hand Roasted Coffee (unionroasted.com), which supplies independents, has not only been outspoken about Fairtrade problems but also developed its ownDirect Trade standards, working with producers in Rwanda. When they achieve the right quality, they are paid far above market rate. Today’s independent baristas’ interest in the taste – and therefore quality – of the bean drives more ethical sourcing. This creates more private contracts with smaller farmers (who in turn should make a better farm-gate price).
This moves us from trusted ethical certification to a reliance on word-of-mouth – though you often have to ask suppliers questions and work on trust. The UK’s artisan coffee sellers are rarely indifferent to the supply chain – the story of the bean and the relationship from grower to grind drives them. Now they’re setting their own ethical standards.
Originally Published: The Guardian