The Politics of Coffee
[Woo hoo: my first post entirely from my new Ubuntu operating system! No more windows! Ooooh the thrill 😀 ]
Ten Thousand Villages has been in the Fair Trade business since the 1950’s. A long time. A pioneer. Their growing chain of Fair Trade retail stores sell amazing art, handcrafts, rugs and furniture as well as coffee, chocolate and sugar from all around the world.
I kicked nicotine nearly three years ago, but I confess I am still very much a caffeine junkie.
I need my morning coffee.
A few years ago my niece did an assignment on caffeine addiction and withdrawal and I was one of the guinea pigs in her caffeine dependency experiment; which meant I had to reduce my intake… oh the horror. It wasn’t pretty; lets not go there.
I first learned about Fair Trade through Oxfam’s “Make Trade Fair” campaign, in which a variety of celebrities allowed a variety of fair trade products to be dumped on them for dramatic photographs. Here’s Alanis Morissette:
At that time it was quite hard to find most Fair Trade goods. Although some national brand coffee companies claimed to carry Fair Trade Coffee, none were available in any of the local grocery stores, so for the longest time my fair trade coffee came from Ten Thousand Villages. They offered a selection of beans and ground coffee from different countries and companies.
One of the best things about Fair Trade coffee is that it is always far fresher than “name brand” coffee.
Another favorite coffee source is Planet Bean in Guelph, and when you’re near the roastery the gorgeous aroma wafting out is like a tiny bit of heaven. I bought an excellent Planet Bean cannister for beans with an ingenious interior seal that adjusts downward so your coffee beans stay fresher longer. My favorite Planet Bean coffee is currently Cafe Feminino.
My original “regular” Ten Thousand Villages coffee was Café San Miguel from the selection offered by Level Ground Trading in BC. Then one day it was gone. I was told by Ten Thousand Villages staff that it had simply been repackaged — rebranded — as the new “Ten Thousand Villages brand” coffee. But when I tried it, it was not as good as it used to be. So back to the process of trying the other types of Fair Trade coffee on offer. The Just Us! French Roast was good, but their Italian Roast was spectacular. A new favorite was born. It was a bit more expensive but I thought worth it, and for a change I was now supporting an East Coast Fair Trade Coffee Co-op.
But even when you have a favorite, every now and again it’s nice to mix it up and try the others. Or try new brands that came out.
Maybe a year ago the massive Shoppers Drug Mart chain started carrying Fair Trade Coffee, in the form of another BC brand called Kicking Horse Coffee. This makes it possible to be able to get Fair Trade Coffee in rural areas on a regular basis, which is wonderful. I’ve tried several of their dark roasts, but I’m inclining toward Hoodo Jo as the current favorite. It is wonderful to be able to buy Fair Trade Coffee so locally I can walk there.
Which is not to say that I was planning on giving up on Ten Thousand Villages. At least I wasn’t until they decided not to carry Just Us! anymore. The tale told was that they are trying to ease out of the coffee products and concentrate on the other products. Of course they are keeping the one line of coffee… the Level Ground Coffee. I’ve explained to people in the store that this means I won’t be there so often. Every time I go there for coffee, chances are I’d walk out with a musical instrument or object d’art. More than one staffer has told me that I’m not the only customer unhappy about not being able to get the coffee I want any more. So I’ve popped in to see if they’ve relented on occasion, but so far it’s a no go.
The thing is, Ten Thousand Villages is not supposed to be a typical retailer; its an arm of the Mennonite Central Committee. I can’t imagine why they would make a choice like that What disturbs me the most is that this seems to be a case of Ten Thousand Villages starting to act like a for profit retail operation.
Most if not all of the staff at any Ten Thousand Villages location are volunteers, people who donate their time freely, precisely because they believe they can change the world. I would have thought that this is one retail organization that would not behave like the average commercial retailer with an eye only for the bottom line. Instead of supporting a variety of fair trade producers as they did in the beginning, they seem to have chosen to support just one. Which kind of negates the whole point of Fair Trade, something like the retail version of Net Neutrality.
When you’re in the world changing business, this is the kind of thing that you don’t do. It’s too bad, but they have certainly lost a good chunk of my business, because the coffee is what brought me through the door.
What triggered this post– although Fair Trade is one of the topics I’ve intended to tackle from the outset — was the fact that I was out of fresh roasted coffee beans today.
So today was the day I cracked my bottle of Fair Trade instant coffee. It’s another Just Us! product, and it’s been sitting in the cupboard for just such an emergency. Probably for close to a year. And I have to tell you, I pretty much assumed that it would be just as dreadful as other instant coffee. But it’s not.
It’s actually pretty good. Who’d a thought. 😀