Source Washing and the Illusion of Transparency.

Not too long ago McDonald's determined they had an image problem and wanted to do something about it. No, they didn't want to address the issues that contributed to the problem, they wanted a PR campaign! The problem, as they saw it, was that too many people saw McDonald's as a huge, soulless, corporate monster hellbent on destroying the health of its consumers and the livelihoods of its suppliers, or something to that effect. The solution would be to put a face behind the product. One post featured a beef farmer, another a potato farmer. By focusing on the people who supply McDonald's they hoped to deflect the negative image the public held.

It would have been a successful campaign had they not decided to deploy it through social media that allowed for user comments. All went well for a short time until they were forced to take down the posts as negative comments began to dominate the discussion. By opening up the posts to comments they inadvertently exposed themselves to their own hypocrisy. Many users were not swayed by the campaign and called out the company on their practices.

This story reminded me of an experience I had recently during the Specialty Coffee Conference in Portland. I had accepted an invitation from a Brazilian coffee exporting firm to tour Portland area roasters and participate in a program that included a cupping of a number of Brazilian coffees. The invitation came from a long time friend in the coffee industry who got his start in Brazil. He knew of my long held unfavorable opinion of Brazilian coffee but he assured me that Brazilian specialty coffee had come a long way in the last decade and deserved a closer look. Knowing that I am highly opinionated but often wrong, I decided to keep an open mind and hear what they had to say.

The heart of the presentation centered around the transparency the program offered. Every roaster would be supplied with a tracking number that identified the background information of that particular lot. It was even tied into a Google Earth map that would pinpoint the exact location on the farm where that coffee was sourced. Moreover, it would pull up detailed information on the farm itself. This pop up included all the requisite info on the farm, i.e. type of coffee tree, harvest technique, elevation, and best of all, a picture of the farmer.

I found this information was somewhat problematic rather than having its intended effect of drawing me in. First off, the Google image showed what any ecologist would recognize as a "Green Dessert," a landscape of monoculture devoid of any other living organism. This form of industrial agriculture has been championed in the last sixty years as a revolution in production. But with it has come the dark side of run-away chemical inputs and runoffs, habitat destruction and loss of indigenous flora and fauna. The identification of the land owner as a coffee farmer (a third generation coffee farmer no less) was just as egregious, this guy is a coffee farmer about as much as Howard Schultz is a barista. All of this made for a complete example of what I have come to call source washing.

For the better part of its history, the coffee industry has been guilty of the exact opposite - purposely concealing the origins of the coffees used in mass-marketed blended brands. The advent of the Specialty Coffee market changes matters only a little. Many roasters, while promoting the idea of using only high quality Arabica coffee, still preferred marketing blends, partly to create a sense of exclusivity, partly because it was easier to sell coffee with catchy blend names that evoked exotic locales rather than the locales themselves.This practice had the added benefit of allowing the roaster to substitute particular coffees whenever availability or price dictated. When you have a blend with five or so components in it no one is going to notice that you switched a coffee from Colombia with one from Brazil.

Despite the prevalence of blends some origins were able to develop a value identity. Even before the Specialty Coffee movement, the Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers launched an incredibly successful campaign in the US market encouraging customers to look for "100% Colombian Coffee" using the now iconic Juan Valdez and his donkey as their model. Maybe because of this early success, Colombian coffee has not always had the reputation it deserves in the Specialty Trade, being perceived as somewhat passe' to the Specialty Coffee drinker. Other countries followed Colombia's lead and became early names in coffee, notably Kenya and Sumatra. While Kenya made a concerted effort to create a quality association with their coffee, Sumatra is a different matter altogether. Coffee from Kenya gained notoriety for its clean, winey flavor with big floral notes, and it represented a refined taste. Sumatra, on the other hand, was the Rolling Stones to Kenya's Beatles, dirty, musty, often over-roasted; it represented the hardcore coffee drinker.

As roasters and consumers became more sophisticated, so too coffee's specificity. Soon customers were familiar with more than just the country of origin - regional names entered the lexicon. Savvy consumers looked for Guatemala Antigua and Ethiopia Harrar. Before long, roasters distinguished themselves by the individual estates from a given region so one could find Costa Rica Tarrazu Hacienda La Minita.

Recently I have noticed that some roasters have begun identifying the particular variety of the coffee tree in an ever increasing quest to up the ante in sourcing. I dread the day when a customer comes in and when asked what they may be looking for responds, "Well, I was into pulped natural yellow caturras, but now I find I am leaning more toward honey processed pacamarcas." Source identity devolves into a narcissistic notion, as product identity becomes an individual referent rather than any relationship to the choices we make and their impact on the world.

All of this hyper-inflated source identification obscures a very harsh reality: that 70% of coffee is produced by about 10 million small producers. Any roaster who has made a trip to origin cannot escape the sheer magnitude of poverty that goes hand in hand with coffee's production. Some may recognize their own complicity in a system that too often exploits the most vulnerable in the course of global commerce.  These Roasters have come to recognize that who they sourced their coffee from is just as important as what coffee they sourced.  Many Roasters purposely sourced coffees from small-farmer cooperatives that followed traditional farming techniques. They participated in a cooperative movement that actively promoted community development in the most impoverished areas. This coalesced into what now is known as Fair Trade, a third-party verified certification program that provided consumers an opportunity to choose a product that reflected ethical considerations.  Other certification programs soon followed calling attention to environmental concerns and worker rights. Rainforest Alliance and Utz Certified are just two examples.

No industry likes to have its dirty laundry exposed, and the coffee industry has long nursed its romantic notions of idyllic mountains and rustic farmers. Much of the push back for certified coffee has come from roasters who otherwise have a reputation for quality. This has led to the very dubious practice of identifying coffee as "Direct Trade" to compete against certified trade marks. I have heard roasters respond to customers asking for Fair Trade that their Direct Trade is better than Fair Trade because they pay the farmer more than the Fair Trade price, reducing the issues of trade down to simply a dollar amount. This ignores the fact that Fair Trade sets a minimum price for coffee paid to farmers. Moreover, Maxwell House buys their coffee direct from origin but I don't think anyone would believe that stamping their own Direct Trade mark on the side of the package guarantees credibility. Without third party verification this remains an empty promise, an illusion of transparency.

So, too, having a Google image of a mono-crop coffee farm with a fact sheet promoting the land owner provides little in the way of real value. What it does is source wash over the reality of global trade and environmental concerns. It creates a false sense that quality is something separate from how that product is grown and the conditions of its production. We can make a difference in the world based on what we consume, but source washing blurs this choice and allows those who are unconcerned about their impact to profit from those who want to do good. Roasters who participate in source washing merely muddy the waters.


Newfangled Dad said...

Great post and interesting analysis. I agree, pretty much, with the world you setup...but I found myself disagreeing 2x on a couple of your conclusions. The first was that I'm less against the "narcissistic notion" you mention about ordering varietals, etc.. I think anything that sets up the customer to know more about the farm their coffee was grown on sets up a quest for better practices. Is your version right sometimes? Sure. But I tend to think coffee drinkers aware enough to know their varietals are going to be aware enough about other issues. My 2nd raised eyebrow where I found myself disagreeing was the need for 3rd party verification. I actually think we're headed more towards consumers tied directly to producers in a way that makes the red tape of Fair Trade type modes irrelevant. If you know the farm your coffee came from plants banana trees on their mountainside and is in the process of building better washing stations on their property, the concept of official designation flies out the window. You don't need the organic label per se if the farmer is telling you all about his growing practices. But good coffee requires "story" that is too much print for a pound bag, know what I mean?

Unknown said...

great post mark... will link your blog to mine and your name will forever live in infamy...but we'll be there together.