The shaky grounds of coffee production

Zara DeGroot

Zara DeGroot

I bet your day started off with a cup of coffee of some sort. Maybe a mug of French press as you read the daily paper, or a $6 Frappuccino from the Starbucks drive-thru. For most of us, ranging from the white-collared business people to the tried-and-true college students, becoming a real person and reaching full human potential does not happen until that first cup of morning joe. It is a fast remedy for our struggle to get out of bed and into the real world. But have you ever thought about the struggle behind the production of your sweet bean juice?

Coffee is the world’s second largest commodity after oil and petroleum products, according to Mark Prendergast, author of Uncommon Grounds. With coffee as such a highly commercialized product, you may wonder about the ethics behind it. Where does it come from? Who makes it? How does it get to us in the Western world? 


A documentary called Black Gold details the ethics behind commercial coffee production. A bag of beans that makes 88 cups of coffee earns the coffee growers $0.22. They work long and hard hours in the fields just so we can have a drink that motivates us to get the day started. There is something wrong with this picture.

We, the avid coffee consumers, have the ability to impact these people’s lives. We all want to help people who are struggling. When we see something unjust, it pulls on our heartstrings. We sympathize with those working under harsh conditions from our warm homes filled with good food, and think how awful it is that some people in the world do not have the basic necessities of life. But that is where it usually ends.

When it comes to coffee, we actually can make a difference. Instead of supporting coffee chains that are not fair-trade certified, find a local shop that is and give them some of your business. Families in third-world countries should not have to live in poverty because we choose to be unaware of coffee’s methods of production. Being conscientious of where your coffee is coming from is a simple way to begin to change farmers’ lives.

Yes, commercialized coffee is quick and easy. It is efficient to go through a drive-thru or even run into a gas station for a cheap cup of coffee on your way to school or work. Don’t get me wrong — it is definitely convenient. To say that I never make a trip to Starbucks would be a lie. But rather than always handing over your money to coffee chains who are interested in quantity over quality, start supporting local, fair-trade coffee shops. A latte at a coffee shop like this is not much more than pumpkin spice latte or a peppermint mocha at Starbucks. You will know where your money is going, and you will have a new-found appreciation for your coffee.

Coffee business is big business, and will likely never go away. It might not be long before we make a positive impact and start seeing the difference that fair-trade coffee makes in the lives of people around the world. Next time you crave that coffee drink that keeps you going, think about the ethics behind it. It is time to start saying “no” to commodities and start saying “yes” to communities.

Collegian columnist Zara DeGroot can be reached at, or on Twitter @zar_degroot.