Sunday, April 30, 2006

Looking at the concept of origin

I've been going over the great FT discussion going on at green LA girl and I've been reflecting on the idea of 'origin' as it relates to the coffee industry.

It has been wonderful to see the birth(rebirth?) of coffee focusing on origins. The explosion of interest in drinking coffees from specific places has done wonders for the current ethos of specialty coffee. Drinking a coffee from a certain place that you can point directly at on a map, generates a connection that is difficult to describe but no less real. Through coffee we can truly 'taste the earth' from points all around the planet, each bringing their own unique characteristics and sensory experiences. There aren't many things that we experience day-to-day that can claim that kind of scope. It's pretty damn cool.

The recent (past couple of decades) recognition and celebration of these differences (diversity) of smells, tastes, and feelings has lead to some exciting advances in coffee 'at origin'. Folks like George Howell, Duane Sorensen, and Geoff Watts et al. cannot recieve enough credit here. The forward thinking of these individuals and
many others is starting to get a handle on the agronomic and economic connections to the cup. Realizing how much events (environmental, processing, storage, transport,etc.) at origin can affect the cup,I think, is a vital part of the 'decommodification' of coffee that is crucial to the industry's health.

All of this focus on origin has generated new concern for the folks at the other end of the coffee chain. Coffee people are always talking about 'trips to origin' 'single origin shots' and what-not. This kind of talk eventually leads people to thinking about the situation of the PEOPLE at 'origin'. The coffee world is slowly recognizing that the conditions (political, economic, social, environmental) in producing countries has a real, but sometimes difficult to quantify, relation to the coffee produced. This relationship can manifest itself in numerous ways... probably as many ways as there are producers themselves.

While it cannot be denied that social, environmental, and economic factors have played a huge role in turning our attention to 'origin' (OG/FT/SG), quality has also been a major driving force in this focus. The people mentioned above have begun to put energy into relationships at origin because they realize that they can ultimatly end up with a higher quality bean if all aspects of the relationship (econ, env, pol, soc) are nurtured. This quality in the cup is a part of the 'Total Quality' that is the result of the sum of all aspects of the relationship.

So, if this focus on the 'origin' of coffees is about (or at least related to) achieving 'Total Quality' and it is considerate of the multitude of factors that influence the result of the cup; what about the origins of the rest of the products of our industry/businesses? Everything we use has an origin. What is the origin of the sugar in your cafe? the tires on your delivery vehicle? the gas to fire your roaster? the components of your laptop? Every 'part', ingredient, has an origin and what happens at that origin affects your results... and your 'Total Quality'.

Obviously, you can parse every decision and find some 'unsustainable' factor. Nothing is pure and we can never expect there to be some holy COMPLETELY SUSTAINABLE coffee where every link in the chain is without exploit BUT that shouldn't affect our attempt to strive for the best and most (more) sustainable options.

I hope that the current focus on coffee 'origins' will also cause us to begin investigating the origins of all the things we use in our businesses/life and seek ways to improve the 'Total Quality' of what we do as an industry and as individuals.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Coffee Sustainability=physics?

I've been thinking lately about what it means to strive after sustainability in coffee. Obviously there is the economic justice element (i.e. fairtrade etc., producer/origin focus ) but sustainability involves a lot more than just paying farmers a fair amount. Why has the focus on origin overshadowed our efforts toward sustainability in our own shops/roasting plants/homes? Maybe it hasn't but there certainly isn't a lot of noise made regarding running our businesses in sustainble ways.
It seems to me that it's really sexy nowdays to show pictures of smiling farmers and tell stories about all the great things done to improve quality of life in producing countries but what about the producers of all the other products we in the coffee industry consume? Are sugar producers worth less? What about people that work at the chemical plants that produce all the poisonous crap (cleaning products) a lot of us use daily in our businesses?
I think it's easy to focus only on sustainability issues surrounding coffee because it is the focus of our business but does that mean the other stuff is inconsequencial?
I tell my customers and staff all the time that when you insist on OG/FT/SG etc. coffee, your buying power is in such contrast to the traditional model of commercial coffee consumption that you are surely rocking the coffee boat (if only a little). I take great pride in providing a pathway for coffee lovers to choose coffee that makes a positive difference in the lives of ALL the people that touch it.
Those of us willing to make certain sacrafices (more$,less selection,slow to change cert. systems, waning interst?)to purchase and provide these types of coffees need to ask if there are other sacrafices that need to be made to strive for whole-business-sustainability.
It's easy(er) to make sacrafices that you can flaunt (FT/OG etc) but what about things that aren't readily marketable like using only recyclED paper (for printing,brocures,cups,napkins,TP, what else?) We're willing to explore every avenue to improve coffee quality what about overall quality?
It's expensive to do some of these things compared to the easyway (cheap Cash&Carry paperproducts/cheap refined sugar etc.) but great coffee is expensive compared to Folgers. We talk a lot about educating costomers about what it takes to create great sustainable coffee, what about great sustainble businesses?
So what does this have to do with physics? I'm not totally sure but I think...something. I was invited to give a talk on 'Fair Trade' coffee at a local synagogue last week and I spoke about an interesting parallel between Hebraic thought and what 'sustainability' as a business model is about: right relatedness.
My take on Jewish law (speaking as a Gentile) as it has developed from Torah through the Talmud is that adherence to a set of standards of living are meant to keep spiritual beings in balance with the material world. I think this ideas can be applied to many religious and ethical systems but Judaism is a prime example. For right or wrong, these laws (Kashrut or Kosher laws were the context for my being invited to speak) are an attempt to keep people in balance with other people, beings(animals,plants), and objects(stuff,possesions). The goal is to achieve "right relatedness" that is exist in a state where all things are in proper proportion to all other things. This may be a bit oversimplified and wishy-washy but I think it accuratly reflects the thrust of not only Hebrew Law but often laws in general. Whether structure and control (law) is the best way to achieve balance is extremly debatable.
This begs the question, where does the notion of balance/proportion come from? Well, often what is 'right' is determined by those in power for the pourpose of power maintainence. Though this idea of balance/relation may be coopted (all to frequently) its origins are plain enough...nature. Physics.
Physics (Newtonian certainly but also quantum, though it may be beyond our grasp) is the study of relationships. Whether its magnets placing themselves in proper relationship to one another or gravity placing objects in thier place, physics is about forces acting/reacting to create a balance of one sort or another.
Quantum physics as well, is about achieving a balance between implicate and explicate realities (Bohm,Whitehead). In this area we may not be able to measure the relationship as easily but it certainly seems that there is some sort of pattern in the chaos (or it IS the chaos not understood or misunderstood).
This is where I see the energy driving sustainable coffee (and sustainbility in general) for me. Striving for sustainability is striving for that balance, that right relatedness.
Now some people may say, "What about entropy?" "What about destruction?" Well, I see entropy's conclusion as the ultimate balance. If entropy is about smoothing-out differences then so is coffee sustainability. Allowing value to be proportional to all links in the chain. Obviously there is a great amount of subjectivity here, but I see certain paralleles.
So, all of this to say that attempting to acheive sustainability in just one part of the chain may create a greater imbalance (and therefore greater stresses) in other parts. Sustainability isn't sustainable if it is not Whole. There would be no coffee business without coffee but there is more to the coffee business than just coffee.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Where are we?

It's really been dawning on me lately what little visible presence there is in the online coffee world of sustainability. It seems that because most of the big 'Third Wave' players have embraced sustainability in some form or another that the aggressive analysis of the issues has nearly ceased. In some cases it appears to just be lip service, while other are blazing new paths. Despite the fact that 'fair trade' and 'organic' get a lot of airtime, there seems to be little depth to the discussion of sustainability issues in coffee... especially from the retail perspective.
There are some obvious exceptions to this great void such as the always enlightening wisdom dispensed by Geoff Watts, Mark Inman and Tim Dominick (among others). These folks are always keepin' it real on the boards and have my utmost respect. They really are some of the pioneers in promoting sustainability in the online coffee world(and the real world too). Also there's been some recent discussion about FT issues on green LA girl.
A lot of times, though, discussion around 'sustainability' focuses solely on the grower/buyer relationship. Obviously this is the area where the greatest imbalance (economic,social,political) typically exists, however, what does it mean if you paid a good price to a farmer for a great quality coffee but you serve it in a non-recyclable to-go cup? Or a compostable cup but a non-recylable lid? What about your sugar? Who grew it? How much were they paid? Do you care? Your milk? Your napkins? Are they from old-growth trees? How do you know?
These questions never stop. It seems like a lot of companies only want to ask the hard questions, sometimes. Only when the light has already shined on the issue.
What happens when you ask the tough questions all the time? What kind of business develops? What kind of coffee results? We are just seeing the beginnings.

Here it goes.

Well you didn't ask for it but here it is.