Sustainability in Coffee: Rethinking Local

What is local coffee?

We all like to fancy ourselves, responsible consumers, doing research about the products we buy, like where they were made and under what social and environmental conditions. We say “fancy” because sometimes it’s inevitable that we don’t live up to this standard all of the time. For example, most people are better about food than they are about clothing. And even when thinking about responsibility in clothing, it can be hard to know what’s better: a newly-made shirt that we know was produced responsibly or a second-hand shirt of unknown origin?

The point is that being a responsible consumer is hard, even if you know the right questions to ask. Most people don’t. And so they’ve come to rely on labels and certifications to tell them what’s “good.” We don’t say this disparagingly—this is what certifications are for—but when a product has multiple labels, as coffees often do, how do you choose?

There has been a trend over the last few years, especially in produce and coffee, of defaulting to the “local” label as the primary way to make that responsible-consumerism decision. In coffee particularly, this can be frustrating because coffee is not grown in the U.S. (with the exception of Hawaii). Any specialty roaster, no matter where they are in the country, is getting their coffee from the equatorial countries where it’s cultivated—none of which are “local” by any stretch of the imagination. “Local” in that the coffee was roasted nearby? Very possible. “Local” in that it was grown and harvested and processed nearby? Nope.

What can be troubling is when consumers, in striving to be responsible, choose the local label above all else, assuming it’s higher quality and/or more socially and environmentally responsible. The local choice may actually be all of those things (great!), but it isn’t necessarily so by default. There’s nothing wrong with taking “local” into consideration for buying decisions, but what do we actually mean when we say “local” for a product that always has a global supply chain?

Perhaps the solution is to expand the definition of “local” based upon why we value it in the first place. We’d argue that the real reason we value buying local is less about physical proximity and is, instead, rooted in the desire to create and support community. Under this definition of local, the question the responsible consumer really wants to get at is whether or not a product supports the people and environment—the community—where it’s made.

Farmers from the Muungano Cooperative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

For coffee, the answer to this question can be difficult to uncover because it’s highly dependent upon how a roaster buys their green coffee. At one extreme, a roaster buys green coffee from the offering list of an importer, much like choosing from a menu. The roaster may get information about where the coffee is from, how it was grown, the people who grew it, etc., from the importer, but isn’t otherwise involved in that coffee-growing community and may or may not buy from them again next year. At the other extreme, the roaster contracts the coffee before it’s even harvested, working directly with the grower(s) on both short and long-term quality and sustainability projects that build farmer and community resilience.

There are definitely exceptions within this general framework, but it challenges the notion that, for coffee, “local” is always the most-responsible choice if their local roaster operates more toward the first coffee-buying extreme. It’s tricky because if a consumer is thinking about the whole coffee supply chain, there are multiple communities to consider—where it’s grown, where it’s roasted, and where it’s served to name a few. There’s no right answer as to which of these communities is most worth supporting. Luckily, that support doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive, but it does need to be made known to consumers so that they can take it into consideration in buying decisions.

All of this just underscores our point: Being a responsible consumer is hard. It requires doing homework about a company, weighing your own values, and access to information in order to decide whether those values are fulfilled. For Counter Culture, we’re working on making that information not just more accessible, but concise and approachable, as well. Coffee is an awesome product precisely because it has the potential to support so many different communities and, if it exists, that level of support shouldn’t be hard to find.