From Wave to Wave, Coffee’s Ethics Continuously Evolve

Coffee began hitting the everyday consumer's shelves, in the United States, in the middle of the twentieth century. Since 1950, consumption has decreased, although coffee spending has not. Premium and specialty grade coffee and drinks have propelled the 225 Billion dollar industry. Increasingly, consumers are conscious of the quality and sourcing of their coffee beans. Luckily, distributors are making it increasingly easy to consume more ethically sourced coffee, albeit at a cost. As the coffee industry has progressed from wave to wave, ethical sourcing, such as Fair Trade and Direct Trade models, has made it more accessible for consumers to prioritize ethics while consuming coffee. Unfortunately, the new ethical models of coffee sourcing were not always as prevalent as they are today. 

First wave coffee

For the United States, the first wave of coffee came about during the middle of the twentieth century. U.S. coffee has roots dating back to the early founding and industrialization of America, however, the general conception of First Wave coffee began around the 1950s. The cornerstone of First Wave coffee, Folgers, sold swaths of bitter, instant, and unethically sourced coffee to the masses. Neither Fair Trade nor Direct Trade, Folgers sources their coffee from varying suppliers. Enabling Folgers to source abundant quantities of Robusta and Arabica beans. Folgers, which creates a coffee blend from both beans to reduce costs, will use the lower quality Robusta as a filler before adding the more expensive Arabica beans. Additionally, since Folgers only sells pre- ground coffee mixes, they are sourcing faulty and lower-quality beans. While purchasing whole beans, consumers have a heightened sense of their bean’s quality. However, the inexpensive preground blends, besides not being able to store their flavor for as long, often are blended with cracked, unripe, and undesirable beans. Luckily, this is exactly what First Wave coffee does so well. Distribute low-quality coffee with the primary goal to caffeinate, simply a means to an end. Ethically, this low-cost, low-quality method produced not only terrible coffee but terrible conditions for the producer. Within the industry, most of the money is made by distributors who act as middlemen from farm to mug. Producers, who are often from disadvantaged and rural agricultural societies, sell their coffee to distributors who roast and distribute the coffee to the consumers. With first wave coffee, the profits made by distributors never find a way back to the farmer. The revenues produced by the distributor never see a return to the actual grower of those beans. Unfortunately, Second Wave coffee, which sought to solve the quality issue, failed to address ethical sourcing.

Second Wave coffee

Beginning in the 1990s, companies, like Starbucks, began tackling the neglected quality issues of Folgers and other related first-wave coffee distributors. While the second wave is also known for bringing coffee away from the supermarket and into the consumer's daily life, such as cafés and coffee houses, this shift had little to do with missioned quality and ethical improvements. For Starbucks, their primary focus was on improving the quality of their beans. Unlike Folgers, Starbucks made it well known what the origin, type, and blend of the coffee were. Never had consumers been directly told where their beans had originated from, even if it was only a general location. Likely, however, this new connection between the consumers and the producers fostered a desire to know even more about sourcing. Efforts to further connect retailers with growers intensified. With prior First Wave distributors not displaying their sourcing, Second Wave distributors gave consumers something to care about. Moving forward, not only was it about quality, but it was also about ethicality. By the tail end of the Second Wave, new trade methods began to hit boutique markets.

Third Wave coffee

Third Wave coffee, fully beginning in the early and mid-2000s, distributed coffee with utmost transparency, quality, and experience. While Second Wave coffee popularized labeling the general location of the beans, Third Wave coffee gave you the town, farmer, and growing practices. Coining Fair Trade coffee, the Third Wave promised benefits to underprivileged farmers who were previously exploited by large roaster-retailers. This vastly improved upon the Second Wave model since full transparency was no longer lacking. Transparency is likely the essence of what makes Third Wave coffee progressive. Without knowing who the producers are the consumers would have had no interest in supporting them. Third Wave, Fair Trade, coffee is expensive, but consumers are willing to pay because they can feel better about their coffee’s sourcing. Unfortunately for retailers, Fair Trade’s fairness has been increasingly scrutinized.

Fair Trade, which sought to bring fairness and wealth to underprivileged farmers, is disproportionally bringing wealth to “consuming countries, while peasant coffee farmers and laborers remain in poverty.” Ironically, Fair Trade, the movement that sought to bring heightened transparency, has been heavily scrutinized for a lack of transparency. Most often, the “information is incomplete regarding how much consumers are “donating” and what proportion of Fair Trade goes to farmers and workers in developing countries.”. For Seattle University’s MotMot Coffee, a registered 501-C4 non-profit Direct Trade coffee distributor, this disparity has been well documented. While large international coffee retailerdistributors are charging consumers high premiums, only an average of $.06 (per cup) or $1.80 (per $15 bag) goes back to the farmer. The benefit to the farmer is left unknown to the consumer despite the perceived “donation” while paying a 55% premium. Conclusively, Fair Trade empowers retailers rather than the farmers.

Fourth Wave coffee

The clear development from here is simple, empowering the farmers. The Fourth Wave for coffee consumption in the United States needs to prioritize farmers over retailers. As previously mentioned, MotMot Coffee is a small, but eager, player in the Direct Trade coffee industry. More well-known, however, are examples such as Stumptown and Intelligentsia. For all three of these companies, creating an intimate and stakeholder-based approach to the supply chain is imperative in promoting a more sustainable and equitable industry. Intelligentsia cites Direct Trade as a way for them to share risk and rewards with their various stakeholders. Intelligentsia sets fixed prices and guarantees minimum prices, protecting their farmers from price volatility on the commodity market. Building long-lasting, communicative, and equitable relationships with micro-farmers will produce not only the highest quality bean but will also produce the highest possible ethics.

The coffee industry has changed a lot over the years. Wave after wave, coffee appears to become increasingly ethical, sustainable, and certainly expensive. When the third wave is concluded, the Fourth Wave is likely to be the farmer's best yet. While consumers may be irritated by the increasing prices, many of them should realize that they are not paying the true cost of anything that they consume. Americans, in particular, are used to paying for low-cost goods that have high social and environmental costs that go unaccounted for. Luckily for consumers, the coffee industry has its back. As the coffee industry has progressed from wave to wave, ethical sourcing, such as fair trade and direct trade models, has made it more accessible for consumers to prioritize ethical beliefs while consuming coffee. Hopefully, consumers will continue to take interest in where their products are sourced from, far beyond coffee.