The Unethical Consequences of Ethical Coffee

"Mmmmmmm! Smells ethical!"

When ethical conduct becomes too complicated, confusing, or controversial, the vast majority of people will shrug and give up, leaving the conduct to be embraced by fanatics who can be relied upon to argue among themselves about who is really being ethical.   Welcome to the world of so-called ethical coffee, where adherents must choose between a dizzying number of certifications and categories to ensure that their coffee purchases support ethical practices and objectives.

“Shouldn’t the dollars you spend support the values you believe in?,” chirps the home page of “Fortunately, when it comes to the morning cup of coffee so many of us love, it’s easier to put your money where your conscience is than with any other commodity. (Just try to find a gas station that can certify that the gasoline you’re putting in your tank isn’t linked to environmental disasters or labor abuses halfway around the world.) With coffee, you can pay a little more and know the grower is getting a minimum price or be sure you’re helping preserve winter habitat for some of the same songbirds that will show up next summer in your back yard.”

Hey, sounds great! Love those song birds! Then comes the “but’…

“But to do that, you have to understand the certifications and labels.” 

Ethical Coffee says that this is easy, that one can  master the technique of identifying ethical coffee “in about the time it takes to enjoy a mug or two.” Right. The site describes special coffee certifications called  Fair Trade, Direct Trade, Bird Friendly, Rainforest Alliance, Organic Coffee,
Carbon-neutral, and Shade Coffee. All of the certifications raise separate issues about ethical trade-offs and actual impact. Unless one wishes to accept on faith that what one is told by ethical coffee advocates, who usually have their own biases and agendas (and are hopped up on coffee), is true, those two mugs rapidly grow to Hoover Dam size. What most “ethical coffee” drinkers do is to pay the extra costs associated with ethical coffee to believe they are being ethical, whether there is any substantive reason to think so or not.  And isn’t it worth an extra buck a cup to even think you are being ethical?

If this sounds like the same process that has persuaded the gullible, good-hearted or needy to blindly hand over money to charities, churches, kids with cans and patent medicine peddlers since  monetary systems began, it should.  A certain percentage of the time, the money never accomplishes the desired and advertised good, and only works to make the giver feel like a virtuous person. That’s something, I guess; call it an ethics placebo. The problem is that in a lot of such scams, pseudo-scams and misguided missions, the money contributed with such high and unsupported hopes actually does harm….as in, apparently, the case of certified coffee.

A study out recently from Germany’s University of Hohenheim  reports that  certified organic and organic fair-trade producers of coffee, far from being rewarded for their ethical growing practices, became poorer relative to conventional producers.  Financial Post author Lawrence Solomon explains:

    “The fair-trade business…discriminates against the very poorest of the world’s coffee farmers, most of whom are African, by requiring them to pay high certification fees. These fees — one of the factors that the German study cites as contributing to the farmers’ impoverishment — are especially perverse, given that the majority of Third World farmers are not only too poor to pay the certification fees, they’re also too poor to pay for the fertilizers and the pesticides that would disqualify coffee as certified organic. Their coffee is organic by default, but because the farmers can’t provide the fees that certification agencies demand to fly down and check on their operations, the farmers lose out on the premium prices that can be fetched by certified coffee. To add to the perversity, it’s an open secret that the certification process is lax and almost impossible to police, making it little more than a high-priced honour system. Although the certification associations have done their best to tighten flaws in the system, farmers and middlemen who want to get around the system inevitably do, bagging unearned profits. Those who remain scrupulous and follow the onerous and costly regulations — another source of inefficiency the German study notes in its analysis — lose out….The contradictions are acknowledged even by many fair-trade merchants, who often refer instead to anecdotal reports of less quantifiable benefits such as better health care or schooling in a village or even, most tangentially, improved habitat for birds or wildlife.”

In short, buying ethical coffee is a lot more complicated than just reading a certification and paying more money. While you think you are nobly supporting responsible coffee growers, helping the environment and bolstering family farms in Third World nations, you may be strengthening a system that makes the poor poorer.  And that’s just coffee. If it is this complicated being ethical when I drink my coffee, how can I possibly have time and energy to be ethical in really important matters?

I know many people who have given up trying to devise healthy diets, because they keep getting contradictory information from supposedly reliable scientific research. What causes cancer in rats prevents heart attacks in people. It’s good to be a little over-weight; exercise can be dangerous in excess; it’s important to reduce your cholesterol, but nobody can show that reducing it changes your chances of dying.  Caffeine is good for you and deadly. So is milk. In Woody Allen’s 1973 comedy “Sleeper,” he is cryogenically frozen and wakes up in the distant future, where he is studied by fascinated scientists, who have this memorable exchange:

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.”

Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.

Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?

Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.

Dr. Melik: Incredible.

As with nutrition and healthy life-style choices, if we keep feeling deceived and misled about what is ethical conduct, there will be a natural urge to give up analysis and  just “go with our gut.” Campaigns like the ethical coffee movement that can’t deliver the ethical results they promise risk undermining the appeal of striving for ethical and responsible conduct generally.

Tea, anyone?

2 thoughts on “The Unethical Consequences of Ethical Coffee

  1. Ok, I really appreciate the skepticism, but I’m trying to find an ethical cup of coffee. Do you buy coffee? How? Do you have any resources that could direct me to, I don’t know, a roaster who knows a coffee farmer, who knows the workers?

    So complicated…

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