Coffee is a product that has been the subject of a great deal of publicity and marketing over the past 100+ years, much of which has been deceptive and manipulative. For years it has appealled to our slave-like love of the dollar. This style of marketing has caused us to see coffee as a commodity and not a unique product that’s quality can vary greatly. One of the reasons I started this blog is to help to educate our customers to good coffee and to begin to help us unlearn what American marketing has taught us.
This re-education will be the subject of a series of upcoming blogs. My desire is for our customers to understand what good coffee is. This is important because it doesn’t just affect what we drink, but it affects millions of coffee farm laborers as well. When coffee is turned into a commodity, our attention is focused on price because we have nothing, other than perhaps roast color, to base our purchase decision on. The direct effect of this is for customers to buy the cheapest product available, which in turn encourages commercial coffee companies to put pressure on farmers and distributors to produce progressively cheaper coffee. It’s easy to see how this progression can affect the lives of the laborers of less developed countries who have little in the way of human rights.
What is a commodity, and how do we keep coffee from becoming a commodity?
Merriam Webster defines a commodity as a mass produced, unspecialized product. Almost any product can be made into a commodity, and commodities are very popular in America. American culture values cheap repetitition with little regards to quality or character. This why every town has a McDonald’s and a Wal-Mart. And even though many people would admit to a disdain for both of these places, they continue to thrive.
The best way to ‘un-commoditize’ a product is to expose the product’s identity. If we think about coffee the way we think about wine we can begin to see this. If it’s good wine, you don’t simply know the color and the country; you know the grape, the vineyard and the year it was harvested as well. Coffee has an identity. It has a region, a variety and a farm with laborers.
As people begin to know the identity of coffees and experience the different tastes of these coffees, they may then begin to purchase specific coffees that suit their tastes or a certain ocassion. The effect of this is that distributors will look for better coffees and, in return, pay farms for the quality of the bean rather than the quantity of the bean. Good farms, like those we visited in Panama, then pay higher wages, because their quality is dependent on the effectiveness of the laborers.
We desire to give our customers as much transparency as possible to know what they are purchasing. I want us to be able understand and see the identity of coffees. This begins my effort to expose coffee’s indentity and to help re-educate us on the product of coffee.