Not your average beverage

Photo courtesy of Pexels.

Everywhere you look, you’re in reach of a cup of coffee. In Nanaimo, there are roughly 45 coffee shops—not including restaurants or grocery stores. Where does this ritualistic morning beverage originate from? Deep down, we know it cannot all be locally manufactured, nor can it be beneficial for our environment. I never used to ask myself this question, but recently, it’s begun to clutter my consciousness.

Coffee exceeds the reputation of an average beverage. It’s one of the most traded goods in the world, and a relied-upon staple in the day-to-day lives of consumers. People have become so dependent on coffee that they fail to recognize their addiction has enabled issues in the trade industry, environment, and workforce. Have you ever stopped to think about the impact your morning cup of joe is having on the planet? The answer is most likely no.

Small-scale farmers once prospered from the coffee bean industry, but today there is a humanitarian crisis. These farmers are now stuck in an ongoing vicious cycle: they stay in the coffee industry for guaranteed profits due to the never-ending demand, but by doing so, they create excess supply. This over-saturates the market and decreases the price at which they can sell their product. The farmers must then sell more to make their living, which creates even more excess supply … the circle continues.

This monetary trap is not the only problem with coffee farms: they are also a depleting force on the environment. The rise in demand for coffee has encouraged growing techniques to become more efficient and cost-effective, but in turn to neglect much-needed environment-friendly growing practices. New growing techniques, like sun cultivation (the mass clearing of forested areas to give coffee trees more access to sunlight) limit the shade that other trees and plant life require to thrive in that environment. The large, shaded trees that would normally provide a habitat for a diverse range of wild flora and fauna have now been compromised. Without these tropical forests, the water quality and wildlife suffer. To make it worse, pesticides are used—this not only damages the environment, but also endangers the workers by putting them at risk of being poisoned or drinking contaminated water. The best way to sustain healthy farming techniques is to pay farmers fair wages with incentives for ecological practices.

Our demands for coffee have also influenced poor labour conditions for workers. Many coffee farmers receive offers for their work that are usually below the cost of production. According to Global Exchange, many family farms overseas generate an income of $500-$1000 a year; a number that is nowhere near the profitable wage needed to sustain a living. Unfortunately, most coffee farmers are paid the equivalent of sweatshop workers and must work within difficult conditions and surroundings every day. This environment they are subject to becomes an overbearing struggle, and as a last resort, these families put their children to work – oftentimes, far too young. Sadly, this prevents the children from receiving an education, and are not even granted labour protection, as they are not officially ‘employed.’ The knowledge and skills needed to flourish in today’s society are stunted. So, along with deadly environmental impacts, coffee farming has also enabled low-income struggles, poor health conditions, lack of education, and enforced child labour, which all further the succession of debt and poverty. How’s your cup of coffee tasting now?

Alas, have no fear, there is a solution. Local and dispersed business coffee ownership strengthens the middle class and helps to deplete the need for coffee farms in places like Brazil and Vietnam. Entrepreneur Elana Rosenfeld wanted to make a change. In 1998, her start-up coffee company signed Canada’s Fair Trade Agreement and paved way for demand of 100% Fair Trade Coffee. You might have heard of her company – Kicking Horse Coffee, which is available locally here on the Island. Elana’s company continuously strengthens the middle class through recirculation and greater share of every dollar in the local economy, and, if consumers choose to purchase from a local shop that sells only humane coffee, it allows for their voice to be heard in the global coffee economy. Not only does local coffee trade stimulate the residential economy, but it also benefits the environment. Bringing goods from afar generally requires using more energy, whereas independent businesses typically make more local purchases and require less transportation.

During my first semester at VIU, I would constantly buy coffee from Starbucks. When I wasn’t drinking Starbucks, I was drinking the coffee my parents bought from Wal-Mart, which carries all the big-brand coffee names. I was oblivious to the negative impacts I was making with every sip I took. I was unaware of the amount of money I was continuously not cycling back into my local economy, and all the environmental destruction, and the inhumane trade and labour conditions I was supporting. Once I realized this shushed truth, every day became more difficult. I knew this needed to change. I, just like everyone else, have the power to make the choice to educate myself as to what I am consuming and to make adjustments accordingly. We are the ones with the ability to create a revolution for the coffee industry.

Just in time for the new Starbucks opening on campus! Think about that next time you pay $6 for your coffee that’s way overpriced, anyway.