America needs to think about its coffee

Image By: Courtesy of Creative Commons

Courtesy of Creative Commons

Before we dive headfirst into this endeavor, I must give you one warning: I am not a coffee drinker, I have never been a coffee drinker and I most likely will never be a coffee drinker. I have no bone to pick with coffee drinkers, and I myself quite enjoy the smell of the coffee aisle at your local grocery store. However, the following information may leave you reconsidering drinking your daily latte.

Brazil. Vietnam. Ethiopia. Three countries that are located on three different continents. Each nation has its own language, culture, social system, geography, etc. However, they have at least one commonality. And this is something that I am guessing most of you, our readers, never would have considered. This commonality is coffee.

Brazil, Vietnam and Ethiopia respectively are three of the largest coffee-producing nations in the world. They are all major players in the world coffee market, which in recent years has had a retail value of over $50 billion. Five companies (Kraft, Nestlé, Proctor & Gamble, Sara Lee and Tchibo) control half the coffee market, a market that happens to be the second most traded commodity worldwide as of 2014. Eighty percent of the world’s coffee is produced by 25 million smallholder farmers, ones that are often exploited by a major company.

This exploitation is something that I find unacceptable. The aforementioned coffee farmers often live in rural and poor communities that rely on coffee as their primary source of income. It is estimated that these coffee farmers receive only 7-10 percent of the retail price of coffee sold in supermarkets. When coffee prices fall below the cost of production, these farmers may face challenges in supplying for their families.

There are also several other factors that hurt the everyday coffee farmer. Global commodity prices, free market economic policies, adverse weather and shifting market shares are all things that may contribute to the fluctuation of coffee prices. If the global market pushes for a lower price, coffee farmers could earn as little as 1-3 percent of the retail price. This lack of price stability is something that leads to yet another unethical practice in the coffee industry, child labor.

I am personally appalled by the concept of child labor. I am a strong believer that the job of a child should be to go to school and receive an education, not work in the fields or a factory from a young age. However, this is just the case in the coffee industry. When the price of coffee drops, farmers often have to withhold their children from school to have them work on the family farm, or to hire them out as casual laborers to help earn wages for the family. The fact that children are kept from an education, and have to work from a young age is one that leaves me wondering how coffee companies can live with themselves while they consciously exploit their own suppliers.

On a typical day in a Guatemala, a coffee picker is required to pick a daily quota of almost 100 pounds. Often they bring their children along to help them fulfill this quota. These children are not technically employees, so they receive no labor protections. Like their parents, they are exposed to hazardous working conditions. They work in intense heat, are required to carry heavy loads, and work with dangerous tools as well as pesticides. They have to endure poor living conditions as well, for many of these children belong to families of migrant workers. Often these workers live in crowded and temporary accommodations without drinking water or electricity. Working hours are commonly more than legal limits, and the families earn far less than minimum wage.

The horrors that coffee farmers face are ones that I cannot even imagine. I recognize that coffee is a major world commodity, but I could not bring myself to support an industry that relies so heavily on the exploitation of its workers. I, like many others, did not know of the importance of coffee to the world economy, and I certainly was not aware of the horrors that come with a product that is consumed in the form of an estimated 1.6 billion cups a day. I hope that this information has been eye-opening to you as our readers. I believe that we must join the cause to stop the exploitation of coffee farmers. Next time you buy coffee at the grocery store, run your favorite brand through the Shop Ethical database and put it back on the shelf if it fails the test.

And I would like to leave you with just one final question: Do you still want that cup of joe?

Jack Kelly is a freshman planning on majoring on journalism and strategic communications. Are you an avid coffee drinker? Does this column change your opinon on your coffee of choice? Please send all comments, questions and concerns to

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