Ethically Sourcing Coffee is Hard. It’s Also Worth Doing Right
by Zach VandeZande
December 30, 2020
Whether you think of it as a morning necessity or as an indulgence, chances are coffee plays a role in your life. It has become a deeply-rooted part of the American experience, which has been bolstered by the rise of Starbucks and explosion of the artisan coffee scene in the last two decades. For most of us, our thinking about coffee begins and ends at the stateside experience: we buy it at the grocery store or in a café, we have preferences when it comes to roast and method of brewing, and that’s about it. What’s hidden from view are the ways in which coffee production is rife with labor exploitation and environmental damage.
When Arka Chaudhury of Kustomcoffee (pictured above) began roasting his own beans—first as a hobby, then as a business—he knew he wanted to understand where his coffee was coming from, and he knew he wanted to do coffee the right way. To him, that meant working one-on-one with small farms, particularly women- and Indigenous-owned operations, so that they could prosper from their labor.
What he quickly learned is that this is harder than it sounds, and it’s very easy for good intentions to get trampled by bureaucracy and obtuse systems. Fair trade guidelines and certifications are one thing that could help, but those often cost thousands of dollars to acquire, and small operations don’t have the cash flow to make that happen even if they are operating beyond what’s required of the certification. Middlemen and coffee brokers are another concern, as they make sourcing more opaque. In addition, small farms are often very economically vulnerable, so an operation that was paying its workers well and caring for the land one season might end up owned by a bank the next, with new management and practices in place.
Doing your due diligence when buying coffee beans quickly becomes a tangled mess, both for the consumer in the coffee aisle and for a roaster like Arka, and it’s hard to enjoy a cup of coffee when there’s the lingering concern that it might have been picked by an indentured laborer whose land was repossessed by the bank and sold off to a conglomeration. Luckily, Arka has found a solution: the power of cooperative buying.
Kustomcoffee is part of a buying coop of 16 different small roasters. Together, they’ve got the buying power to skip the brokers and work directly with a small farm, which allows them to develop a working relationship with the farmers themselves. They also employ NGOs in the region to confirm that the farms they’re working with are meeting the ethical and environmental standards the buying coop sets. In this way, the coop assures that every bean that comes to them has been grown with care for the land and dignity for the people working it.
As you might imagine, this is a lot of work! And it has to happen with frequency and diligence, since the coffee-growing industry is very volatile on the ground. Larger roasters set the tone for the industry as a whole, and they are often concerned with operating at scale to lower the price point. At the end of the day, doing coffee right means operating in a system that was designed not to work that way, where the most powerful players have a strong inducement toward exploitation.
I know Arka, though. He’s a force of nature when he wants to be, and he puts in the work to make sure every bag of coffee he imports is one that was grown with ethical and environmentally-sound practices. When I was talking to him about coffee most recently, he said, “Every cup of coffee changes the world a little bit.” That’s true for the drinker—a brightened mood, notes of flavor hitting the tongue, a warming body on a winter morning. But it’s true for the wider world, too, and it’s good to know that when the coffee is made with Kustomcoffee beans, that cup changed the world a little bit for the better.
Number 1 Sons is proud to carry Kustomcoffee for home delivery. You can put some in your next order by clicking HERE