Published 4 years ago.
About a 6 minute read.
From growers to sellers and consumers, there’s no doubt coffee touches billions of people every single day. But as coffee prices continue to decline, how can we address the underlying power dynamics that are driving unsustainable practices?
In August 2018, the benchmark price of coffee slipped below US$1 per pound. As
it has continued to hover at around $1 or below for most of the following
months, the coffee price crisis has garnered significant attention.
The crisis is a potent symbol of a shocking reality: Coffee farming has been a
‘chronically’ unprofitable business for many producers for many years. Both
consumer demand and prices continue to increase and many coffee companies
continue to report record profits, fueling this $200 billion industry. And at
the same time, climate change impacts, outmigration patterns, volatile economic
and continually increasing costs of production mean that, for many growers,
making a decent living growing
is increasingly beyond the bounds of what’s possible.
Over the last year, Forum for the Future has worked alongside the Specialty
Coffee Association’s Price Crisis
Response (PCR) team to understand and address
the price crisis and make recommendations for a more sustainable coffee
The concentration of power in the coffee system and power dynamics emerged as a
key root cause of the price crisis, effectively “locking in” the current
unsustainable system. Below are a few key learnings that have emerged from this
project. They challenge us all to consider how to understand, question and
ultimately rebalance power in the service of a more equitable and just system.
This work on supply
chains is not just
relevant for coffee, but has broader implications — for example, for our work in
the tea, cotton and palm
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To understand how power functions in a system, study its history. In this case,
coffee consumption really took off in the mid-1600s, facilitated by the
British and Dutch East India Companies. By the end of the century,
large-scale cultivation had begun when the Dutch introduced coffee to the East
Indies and, largely because of their use of forced labour, they quickly began to
dominate the market. As European consumption rose, other colonial powers —
particularly France — followed suit, using slaves in their colonies to grow
coffee for the export market. This specific market structure — the global North
controlling the trade of coffee that was largely produced in the global South by
artificially low-cost labour — has not changed substantially since the colonial
period. The sector can’t move forward without acknowledging its roots.
While we can still respect expert opinions and use existing knowledge, one
should also maintain a healthy scepticism for experts as the endpoint for all
knowledge acquisition. The coffee sector, like many sectors, tends to be insular
and the same experts get invited to the same tables. Many of these folks are
brilliant and committed to the work, but seeking new and non-traditional
opinions is critical to finding innovative solutions to old problems.
How can your work use varied epistemologies and different — perhaps even unusual
— perspectives? Who gets to determine who is an “expert”? Who inevitably gets
left out when this label is used? How does the label of “expert” concentrate
power? Asking more and better questions of both experts and people traditionally
left out of the discussion is central to finding better answers.
At a recent meeting on PCR work, we had 75 coffee industry representatives from
diverse backgrounds participating in a systems mapping
exercise (a tool
for diagnosing systems and exploring macro factors influencing them). To kick
off the workshop, each person introduced themselves and placed their names on a
chart of the coffee value chain. This took significant time. For those in the
room from backgrounds that prioritise expediency, we received feedback that this
exercise was unnecessary and took time away from the actual “work.” Conversely,
other attendees found the time spent on this exercise incredibly important. For
this second group, having the opportunity to say their names, tell their story
and interact with the folks in the room was a critical part of “the work.” For
myself, a facilitator from an ‘expediency’ background (northern, east coast,
corporate), I had to be careful that I didn’t let my bias become the default.
At another of our meetings, we were facilitating in three different languages:
English, Spanish and Portuguese. This was incredibly difficult from a
facilitation standpoint, but we recognized that there was an immeasurable
benefit in enabling attendees to discuss their challenges in their first
language. Furthermore, it was important to make space for those who may be
illiterate or semi-literate.
As facilitators, we often rely on having individuals write out their insights —
on worksheets, flipcharts, whiteboards. With a diverse audience, this isn’t
always possible. One way that we attempted to adjust power dynamics was to
incorporate drawing and storytelling into the workshop. These methods not only
created space for creative solutions but allowed for more diverse ways of
participating in group activities.
Acknowledge that the intent and the impact of your actions are different. To
understand and challenge power, we need to start with acknowledging our own
relationship to it. There will inevitably be times when good intentions fall
flat; create a space where this is acknowledged and provide a platform “to do
better” next time around.
Formal power is attributed to someone because of their title or position.
Informal power exists when someone can influence people. Understanding how these
types of power function in a group enables more mindful navigation of the group
— how does the decision-making currently happen? How does the group want it to
happen? Who assumes they have a voice in the room? Who is left out? Who has
power in the room that is unacknowledged? Whose power is a function of their
standing in society? Thinking through how different types of power are
functioning in the microcosm of your sessions can give you valuable insight into
how it is functioning in the regime of your system.
For example, we had groups from the coffee-producing side and from the
coffee-consuming side mapping "how power flows" across the coffee value chain.
Many representatives from the demand side commented that coffee producers are
disempowered; conversely, many producers said they do have power (the land, the
product, the agronomic knowledge) but it isn't recognized. Both sides are right.
Power is neither inherently good or bad — but understanding how to rebalance
power is critical to systems change, and changing our systems is critical to the
pursuit of a sustainable and equitable future.
Published Nov 1, 2019 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
Samantha Veide is Forum for the Future’s Associate Director — Americas. Her work focuses on working with businesses to stretch their sustainability strategies to be more ambitious and more systemic, and working for sustainable value chains and livelihoods that work for all.