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Join Coffee's Rally for Resilience

Earth Day reminds us that we'll weather this storm.

by Shizue Roche Adachi | April 22, 2020

A conversation on the environmental impact of coffee, and how we can all make a change for the better.

A few years ago “regenerative” became the new buzzword, replacing the long embraced “sustainable.” But now, as we celebrate an Earth Day from the confines of our homes, or with our faces masked and a strict six-foot distance observed in essential workplaces, we’re thinking of a new word: resilient.

Resilience is a measure of your ability to withstand, to bounce back, to weather the storm and be stronger for it. It is the coffee cherry ripening on an impossibly steep mountainside made sweeter by the unseasonable cold.

While resilience can be a measure of individual strength, when we’re talking about the environment, we have to measure resilience by the health and vigor of our communities. Because talking about environmental sustainability means talking about justice.

People have long identified Kickapoo Coffee with sustainability initiatives and environmentally friendly coffee, because our roastery is 100 percent solar powered. But our efforts to shrink our footprint in a carbon-hungry industry is part of a much bigger conversation.

On environmental problems with coffee production: "This is a lofty goal and it requires the collective support and ingenuity of our entire coffee community."

Truly “sustainable coffee” is coffee that supports the present and future wellbeing of every player in the supply chain. This is a lofty goal for an industry plagued by waste and the long shadow of colonialism, and it requires the collective support and ingenuity of our entire coffee community.

Fair farmer compensation has been an ideal in the world of coffee for more than two decades. While the Fair Trade movement and Direct Trade model have both made meaningful progress in addressing poverty at origin and inequity in the supply chain, there's more to be done.

In 2015, Kickapoo Coffee announced an unprecedented minimum price guarantee to farmers, at the time $2.75 per pound (FOB). Our current minimum price of $2.90 per pound remains 70 percent higher than the Fair Trade Organic minimum price. Meanwhile, an ever fluctuating commodity market continues to force farmers to sell their coffee below the cost of production, pushing them off their land and depriving them of economic mobility. An individual act of responsibility won’t create a resilient industry. It’s just a drop in the bucket.

Inequality in the supply chain is not the result of chance. It is the natural effect of an economic system that privileges profit over people. Until we can flip this assumption on its head, we cannot hope to build a sustainable, let alone a resilient, coffee industry.

This is not a novel realization. Coffee is an incredibly precarious industry. This fragility can feel distant and when we talk about the impacts of inequitable farmer compensation on a community thousands of miles away. But that fragility has come into stark relief over the last few weeks as we’ve witnessed our neighbors shuttering their cafés, fellow roasters struggling to make ends meet, and baristas relying on virtual tip jar contributions to help them pay rent.

This pandemic could have lasting impacts not only for the café employees on the frontlines, but for the farmers relying on the business of roaster partners like ourselves. The ripple effects are immeasurable.

A resilient system could catch us. Instead, we’re all scrambling to stay afloat, trying to find individual solutions to a crisis so much bigger than any one person.

I don’t have the answers, but collectively we just might. Resilience is earned. In every lesson, every hard moment withstood, our understanding of the work to come becomes clearer. And we look to initiatives and organizations from Transparent Trade Coffee to Glittercat and see leaders pushing us to ask the hard questions and work collectively to solve them.

Earth Day was the brainchild of Gaylord Nelson, a senator from our home state of Wisconsin. Conceived of as a national teach-in on the environment, Nelson was determined to create a day for expansive conversation and grassroots activism. On the first Earth Day in 1970, crowds gathered across the country and rallied with bright signs and bold voices. There was vigor and a raw edge to the original Earth Day –– a gutsiness.

So as we celebrate Earth Day this year, peering outside from our apartment windows and gathering only across screens, let’s get back to the basics. Let’s brew a cup of coffee and take this moment of social isolation to hold a teach-in on social solidarity. If we commit ourselves to the collective work of resilience, we can be so much more than drops in a bucket. Let’s stand together, from six feet apart, and start some Big Conversations. And instead of using this as a day to tout our reusable water bottles, in the true spirit of Earth Day, let’s rally.

We will get through this moment and, when we do, let’s be sure the world outside our front doors is the one we want to return to.