Friday, May 13, 2005

Coffee and the world

We read different things about coffee all the time. Sometimes it is that coffee is bad for our health. Other times it is good. Sometimes we read about high prices, over supply and the challenges for the people and countries who grow the beans.

Most often, we read about a new coffee shop, see an ad for Starbucks, and learn about some event that is designed to put more coffee in more coffee cups.

What is it about coffee that makes it such an intriguing product.

Well, many might not say “intriguing”. In fact, they may curse coffee that keeps them up, stains their desks, and costs too much.

For me, coffee is an icon for much of the world that interest me most.

It starts in front of me with the daily joy of being able to read a printed newspaper with a cup of coffee in hand. Whether I do that at home, in an office, on an airplane or in a faraway location, it is a wonderful experience for me.

Many others must do it, or at least Starbucks and other coffee places seem to work very hard to put plenty of newspapers within easy reach of their customers. In fact, Starbucks and The New York Times even have an exclusive deal or two that tries to make two important trademarks reinforce one another.

People make their coffee in different ways. Some prefer the easiest route, and others prefer a more complicated route. Some like their coffee doctored up with sugar and dairy products (real or imitation) to the point of where any sense of it being coffee is lost. Others are purists, who drink only espresso or at least undoctored black coffee. In-between, there are so many choices of preparation and serving. It is a truly personalizable drink and surrounding ritual.

In our house, we like to foam it up in the morning and we do so with a manual “frother” that also serves as part of the morning exercise program. Working that frother is a great way to get the juices flowing, or at least to get them ready for the coffee to do its work.

I think a lot about the world beyond the coffee cup, the one we read about it in some of the newspapers we read while drinking.

Having visited a coffee plantation in Kenya some years ago, I feel closer to the bean, and closer to the people who work very hard to produce them.

The production of coffee, when one lays it out graphically, looks a lot like the way much of the developing world - and its relation to the rest of us - actually works. As with textiles and the like, we move toward low prices from overseas and don’t worry very much about how all that happens.

The result has been the establishment of coffee bean prices at a low level around the world, not yet giving coffee growers and others in the supply chain a chance to benefit from all those Starbucks cups that get sold in all those Starbucks cafes every day.

We could learn a lot about development, globalization and related subjects by studying the organigram for this, and attaching notes and prices along the way.

Suppose we were all paying twice what we pay today for coffee beans, what might happen? Well, a lot of people in very poor countries around the Equator would be a lot happier. They would be eating better and wearing better clothes (wherever they might be made).

This is not likely to happen, though, because the biggest buyers are able to exert incredible pressure on the suppliers. The contracts are huge.

Fair Trade projects are helping and we should patronize those vendors. That is good. We should also think about how important it is to pay more for the clothes we buy from overseas.

What we don’t understand, we cannot be expected to address, can we?

The beginning efforts to help us understand global supply chains deserve our support. The marketplace will respond if we all ask for more of this.

When you buy your next coffee bean or cup of coffee ask specifically where the beans came from, and how much they cost when purchased from the growers. Do the same for that next pair of pants.

Perhaps you will find an interesting story tomorrow morning in that newspaper as you read it with your coffee.

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