Did that headline get your attention? Believe it or not, environmental and economic sources threaten coffee’s survival.
According to some estimates, wild arabica varietals could decrease by 50% by 2088. Many coffee roasters have already felt the effects of reduced supply after a widespread frost devastated the 2022 harvest in Brazil. These environmental shocks are only going to continue.
Additionally, coffee is in grave danger of running out of people who want to cultivate it. 60% of the global supply of coffee is grown on smallholder farms that are passed down through generations, and the price of the farming inputs has gone up without coffee prices following that same trajectory.
Coffee farmers are being squeezed, leading many of them to abandon their farming operations altogether.
While this picture may seem grim, there is something that businesses and consumers can do about it. It is what Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Company has been doing since 1993: putting people and the planet over profits by investing in the source through our People-Centered Development model. When Dean Cycon, the company’s eponymous founder, started Dean’s Beans over 30 years ago, he set out to show that a for-profit business with ethical business practices could improve the lives of people in the coffee lands and, after 30 years of continuous growth, it’s safe to say that Dean has proven his point.
Here, we will explain why investing in coffee farming communities is crucial, how Dean’s Beans People-Centered Development works, and how it differs from traditional development and aid. This approach benefits everyone involved, from the farmer to the consumer.
Investing vs. Donating: A Paradigm Shift
When it comes to supporting coffee farmers, we prefer to use the term “investing” rather than “donating” or “aid.” Investing implies a long-term commitment and a mutually beneficial relationship.
By investing in coffee farmers and cooperatives, we are not simply providing temporary assistance, but building a sustainable foundation for their growth and success. For example, we have funded fruit tree planting programs in almost every cooperative we work with and have seen how these programs fuel the growth (literally!) at the cooperative level. Fruit trees provide an alternative income source and diversify their farms, helping them to deal with the climate impacts and economic unpredictability of coffee farming.
If they have a lower-than-expected coffee yield, they can fall back on their fruit harvest, and vice versa. Many crops, especially mangoes, are also highly desirable for value-added products. The best part about fruit trees is that once purchased and planted, they can produce fruit for years or even decades, giving the cooperatives an excellent return on investment. By helping our partners to ensure their coffee farms are profitable and successful through programs like this, we help secure the longevity of our supply chain, meaning that we can roast delicious, sustainable coffee for years to come.
By building a business around empowering and fairly treating coffee growers, Dean’s Beans helps empower their communities.
Dean’s Beans recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, and Cycon felt it was the right time to retire. His last act as company CEO was to sell Dean’s Beans to his employees, making it a worker-owned co-op.
Business is Not a Neutral Activity
Business is not a neutral activity, no matter where you fall in the supply chain. Every choice businesses and consumers make helps or harms people and the planet. One of the fundamental problems in the coffee industry is that when businesses sell their beans, they treat them like a specialty product and charge accordingly. However, when they buy their beans, they look at them as a commodity they want to pay as little as possible for.
The commodification of coffee and other goods (especially when raw materials are coming from south of the equator) separates the final product from the process, leading to goods being undervalued.
Many factors go into determining the price farmers receive for coffee, including (but not limited to):
- climate change
- the cost of importing and transportation
- algorithmic speculation on the C-market, which leads to price volatility.
One thing that the price is not based on is how much it costs farmers to produce, which means many coffee farmers lose money year after year on the product they work so hard to produce.
Historically, profit maximization was the main goal for most businesses, and the “buy low, sell high” approach was held up as the “right” way to do business. At Dean’s Beans, we reject that goal in favor of prioritizing people and the planet before profits. 30 years ago, Dean imagined a new way to do business guided by collaboration between the buyers and sellers instead of pitting them against each other.
In a world where the people who make the raw product and the people who sell the finished product are partners instead of adversaries, businesses investing in social and environmental impact projects at source start to make a lot more sense.
Putting People over Profit: The People-Centered Development Approach
In his earlier life as an environmental and Indigenous rights lawyer, Dean saw how traditional non-profit development often fell short of creating a lasting impact. By solely focusing on providing free resources, often without considering the needs and desires of the host community, traditional development fails to empower individuals to affect change themselves. Dean’s Beans People-Centered Development model aims to overcome these obstacles and achieve sustainable development by doing things differently.
The significant difference between traditional aid and our model is that farmers are not passive aid recipients but full partners.
We engage, collaborate, and commit to them long-term. When we purchase coffee from a cooperative, a conversation begins about what would make their lives better. After lots of listening, we worked with the cooperative to design a program to help them realize their goals.
Projects often focus on basic community needs – literacy, education, maternal health, water, reforestation, biodiversity, microcredit programs, and economic opportunity for youth to slow the tide of migration away from coffee farming to the U.S.
Occasionally, Dean’s Beans will arrange for training or capacity building to support the cooperative in implementing the project, but only if the host community requests it; the ultimate goal is for the cooperative to manage the project themselves. Once funding has been provided to the community (about $5,000 for every container of green coffee we purchase, sometimes more), they completely own the project.
This approach provides resources and tools to help communities identify obstacles, put solutions in place, and recognize their capacity to address them. Our cooperative partners have proven this is the secret to successful long-term projects: not how much money or expertise you throw at the issue.
Environmental Stewardship: Protecting Coffee and the Earth
The health and longevity of the coffee industry are closely tied to the environment’s well-being. The most significant way we contribute to sustainability is through our commitment to purchase only 100% certified organic and shade-grown coffee.
How does this help? Organic coffee farms emit less carbon than conventional farms. They even sequester carbon! Conventionally grown coffee is one of the most chemically treated crops on the planet. These chemicals don’t just harm the health of the consumer. They also harm the health of the farmers, the soil, and the ecosystems.
As part of our commitment to sustainable sourcing, we actively engage with our cooperative partners on environmental initiatives, including reforestation efforts, and the preservation and creation of critical migratory bird habitats.
Our most considerable ongoing reforestation effort is in Peru alongside our cooperative partner, PANGOA. Since 2006, we have funded planting over 300,000 native hardwood trees. By 2017, we realized that, between 2006 and 2017, the trees we planted had sequestered enough carbon to offset all of our carbon emissions during that period. This is not a gimmick or marketing ploy. It is not a perfect solution to how we contribute to climate change. Still, it is our honest attempt to take our responsibility to the environment seriously and inspire others to join us by taking their responsibility seriously.
Ethical and Practical Reasons to Invest in Source
While investing in source is undeniably good business, it is not the sole reason behind our commitment. As a coffee roaster, we understand that our operations impact people and the environment.
By investing in coffee farmers and supporting sustainable development, we uphold our values, meet the demands of socially conscious consumers, and secure the health and longevity of our supply chain.
During the roya (also known as coffee leaf rust or CLR) outbreak of 2012-2013 that affected Central and South America, our farmer partners made sure to save the best portions of their harvest for us because they knew they could count on our continued support. Since 2014, we have helped every cooperative that has asked us with roya education, management, and prevention programs. Our dedication to farmers stems from our belief that business should be a force for positive societal change.
In an interconnected world, consumers are increasingly conscious of their purchases’ social and environmental impact. Investing in source goes beyond ethical considerations; it also makes practical sense. Businesses that align with these values gain a competitive edge. Consumers actively seek ethically produced goods in the coffee industry, and the proliferation of the term “direct trade” attests to this growing demand. At Dean’s Beans, we firmly believe that conducting business ethically and sustainably is the right thing to do and essential for long-term success.
Investing in coffee farmers is not just a philanthropic gesture, but a strategic decision with practical and ethical implications.
At Dean’s Beans, we have embraced a People-Centered Development model prioritizing collaboration, long-term relationships with farmers, social impact, and environmental stewardship. By investing in source, we foster economic growth, empower communities, and ensure the sustainability of the coffee industry. We hope our hard work and commitment to these principles inspire consumers to choose ethically sourced coffee, which contributes to positive change and supports the farmers who bring us the rich and flavorful beans we all love.
Thanks for reading! You can take your sustainability journey further with our weekly newsletter. Each week, I share 1 meditation on the art of living & working sustainably. 7500+ people subscribe. Enter your email below to join in.
Marketing Manager, Dean’s Beans
Anna Wardwell is a multi-talented professional dedicated to helping impact-driven brands and social enterprises in food, beverage, and hospitality.