There’s nothing better than sitting down to your first cup of coffee in the morning. Whether you take it hot or cold, sweet or straight up, coffee is a must for people all around the world. You aren’t alone, you java hounds. In the United States alone, we consume more than 400 million cups of coffee per day.
We might like to see the country of origin on our coffee bags, but do we know what really goes into crafting each bag of beans? The 25 million people around the globe who help fuel our coffee addiction by farming coffee plants rarely see the full benefit of this incredibly lucrative industry.
On the latest Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Podcast, Cory chatted with the Dean of Dean’s Beans. With more than 30 years in the coffee industry, Dean has managed to create a completely ethical coffee company that gives back to people and the planet, and helps others follow his lead.
The Dark Side of Coffee Production
Most coffee is produced in the Global South, from Brazil to Ethiopia, Colombia, and Vietnam. Incredibly, coffee is the most important agricultural commodity in the North-South trade and is only second to crude oil in global commodities. As a commodity, like many agricultural goods in the global economy, coffee’s seed price is set each day in New York. This seed price is the bare minimum traders can pay per pound of raw, unroasted beans. However, the seed price set in New York fluctuates based on the global market, not based on the actual crops and yields of coffee beans.
In the last year, the seed price for coffee has varied between $0.93 and $1.38 per pound. Organizations like Fair Trade provide a separate minimum price per pound, providing a buffer that can protect farmers from dipping into poverty when the markets shift. Without Fair Trade (and sometimes even with Fair Trade), coffee farmers are living way below the poverty line and are often forced to vacate their farms and migrate to new land to make a living.
Coffee and the Environment
Traditional farming methods for growing coffee are pretty destructive to the environment. Coffee plants growing in a conventionally farmed area are sprayed with pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, practices par to course for conventional farming. Not only do remnants of those chemicals end up in your cup, but the farmers applying those chemicals in developing countries are also susceptible to known health risks these chemicals create.
The land isn’t spared from destruction either. The overuse of industrial chemicals also harms the land and makes it difficult for the soil to maintain a healthy microbiome. These practices degrade the soil health on these farmlands, reducing the soil’s ability to retain water and sequester carbon, an essential component in the fight against climate change.
Although shade-grown coffee—coffee grown beneath the canopy of existing trees—provides a unique agro-ecological environment for healthy coffee plants to grow, that is not the most common practice. Instead of growing in the shade, farmers resort to deforestation to make room for rows and rows of coffee plants.
Climate change and agriculture already have a tricky, intertwined relationship. Coffee growing requires specific temperatures and rainfall, both of which are being affected by the changing climate. The changes in the climate affect farmers’ crops, and the unpredictability of the changes year to year leave little opportunity to make sufficient adjustments. This vicious cycle is the reason that practices like organic and regenerative farming are being integrated into more supply chains. The future of our coffee supply is totally dependent on the future of agriculture becoming regenerative and operating in a way that fosters land revival.
Coffee and People
The too-low seed price for coffee is driving coffee families deeper into poverty. In Latin America in particular, many coffee growers are struggling to make ends meet, leaving little opportunity for investment in or implementation of changes to their farm that could improve yields and profitability.
Investigations into supply chains of major coffee brands like Starbucks and Nestlé shed light on an unsavory practice on coffee farms: slave labor. Despite these Brazilian farms being “quality-certified” by these brands, unfortunately, corporate accountability is often left inadequately checked in the coffee industry. Revelations of coffee farmers working in slavery-like conditions led to commitments to increase monitoring from the Brazilian government and third-party certifiers, and the brands that once quality-certified the farms, stated they would stop sourcing coffee from them.
While coffee globalization may be seen as financially beneficial to the end consumer and coffee drinkers around the world in the immediate, there’s no question that the global coffee industry needs substantial change to ensure the health of workers and the sustainability of farms. It is possible to share the positive economic impact of the coffee market with coffee growers, it just takes a couple extra steps. This is what Dean’s Beans and various certifications are all about.
What is Ethical Coffee?
Ethical coffee is coffee that hasn’t negatively impacted people or the planet along its journey from the farm to the cafe or your home.
A number of nonprofit organizations seek to advance the well-being of coffee farmers and their families. Fair Trade coffee may be one of the logos you see on a bag of coffee beans, and there are actually quite a few organizations that prioritize and certify Fair Trade entities, each with varying levels of requirements. You might also see USDA Organic, Rainforest Alliance Certified, or Bird Friendly on your beans. All of these certifications ensure environmental protection or social equity.
The model of Fair Trade USA is to set aside a community development fund for farmers. Once there’s a good amount of cash in it, the community votes on what they’d like to do that would improve their home together. It can be for education, safer stoves, or healthcare. This is the bottom-up approach that’s so valuable in social enterprises. By being a facilitator instead of an imposer, certifiers can help communities flourish in the most impactful way possible.
Dean’s Beans is intentionally very involved in the entire coffee process, from bean to cup. They’re Fair Trade Federation verified, which has an incredibly high standard for economic, social, and environmental impact. In addition, Dean’s uses their own sales revenue to collaborate directly with farming communities to set up people-centered development programs for coffeelands. Dean’s is the only coffee company doing work of this kind, but they likely wouldn’t be there without an uncompromising mission to do so.
They share their work with everyone who buys coffee from them. Each bag you buy from Dean’s Beans discusses not only the flavor profile and information about the farm the beans came from, but the community projects that Dean’s has worked with in the last two decades to improve lives around the globe as well. Now that’s ethical coffee!
Dean’s Beans: Drink Great Coffee, Create Real Change
Founded in 1993, Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Company roasts and sells coffee beans that actually have the power to change the world. Instead of focusing purely on profit (which they’ve been making since year one), Dean’s mission is to serve palate, people, and the planet.
Dean’s unique model involves the ethical purchasing of coffee beans at a fair wage and redistribution of profits to the growers themselves. With their People Development Program, Dean’s has a hands-on approach, assisting in the set up of each project, but ultimately, they leave it in the hands of the farmers. The purpose of Dean’s isn’t necessarily to change the world alone, but to model how anyone and everyone can change the world.
Dean’s Beans is a well-decorated company when it comes to certifications. In addition to being a B Corporation, Dean’s is USDA Organic, a member of the Fair Trade Federation, Bird Friendly, and one of Boston’s Best and Brightest to work for.
Dean Cycon, Founder and CEO of Dean’s Beans
An indigenous rights and environmental lawyer turned social entrepreneur, Dean grew up in an era where business was thought of as inherently bad and sustainability in business wasn’t yet a priority. A bit of a reluctant entrepreneur, Dean first started his career in coffee through a nonprofit called Coffee Kids, which still operates today although he moved on to Found Dean’s Beans in 1993.
As a mission driven company, the idea behind Dean’s is to use coffee as an accelerator for social, economic, and ecological change. In the last 20+ years, they’ve done just that by maintaining a lean operation, making phenomenal coffee, and sharing their profits with coffee producers. Their in-depth, hands-on program sends interns and fellows to help oversee projects and solidify relationships.
“I believe that if your business is based on the suffering of others, you have no right to be in business.”
How to Support Ethical Coffee Companies
- Think Before You Buy: Check out this list of Fair Trade Coffee Companies next time you hit the shelves for your latest brew. Tea drinkers, look for those logos!
- Be Wary of Greenwashing: Tons of coffee bags might have words like ethical, fairly traded, or sustainably farmed on them, but without a certification, we can’t really know that’s true.
- Keep an Eye on Price: Dean told us that a higher price doesn’t always mean the farmers are making more money than the next bag over. It might just mean that the roaster or distributor is making more money. When you can, stick to actual certifications and compare prices.
- Stay Curious: Do you have favorite coffee shops in your neighborhood? Start asking questions about how exactly their coffee is sourced. Many shops are proud to say they use Latin American beans or create specialty coffee in conjunction with growers, but taking an extra moment to ask critical questions show the owners just how invested you are in trusting their products.
- All Certifications Are Not Created Equal: Dean told us there are some sneaky ways that exporters handle coffee purchasing for Fair Trade beans and that the language can often be bent, so do some extra research on the company’s website to make sure you’re purchasing something that aligns with your own values.
Closing: Better Coffee for a Better World
Even if you’re sipping on tea every morning instead of a cup of joe, we all have a role to play in supporting ethical businesses that ensure the livelihoods of farmers. We don’t want to see the consumption of coffee come to an end, so we can each do our part to ensure coffee prices are fair and the impact of globalization is positive for each person in the supply chain, instead of just developed countries.
So next time you fill your KeepCup with your favorite warm beverage, think about the true impact of your choice. For high quality coffee beans and an ethical outlook on spreading the benefits of coffee globalization, look no further than Dean’s Beans.
Additional Resources & Links Mentioned from the Episode:
- Dean’s Beans on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube
- Javatrekker by Dean Cycon
- Honor the Earth
- Food First
- Peace Development Fund
Sustainable Workplaces Manager & Writer
Jackie is the Sustainable Workplaces Manager at Urban Green Lab, a sustainability education nonprofit in Nashville, Tennessee. She’s passionate about connecting people with actionable ways to make a positive impact on the environment. She graduated from Dickinson College with a degree in Environmental Studies and a certificate in Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Jackie worked in the nonprofit world in Washington D.C. for Ashoka and the National Building Museum.
Jackie enjoys hiking with her rescue dog, finding craft breweries, and traveling the globe in search of plant-based eats.