To buy or not to buy

To buy or not to buy

Jubilee’s Aaron Hanson continues his monthly blog on environmental and agricultural topics

I love coffee a great deal; there are even some who would say I love it too much. Not so Juan, a hypothetical coffee farmer who, thanks to my coffee-drinking habit, is able to earn a living. But only sort of: in reality Juan receives perhaps 10-20% of what I pay for my coffee and this price is closely linked to international commodity markets which fluctuate wildly and are designed to drive prices down to the cheapest level. Consequently, farmers like Juan face a process of attrition of their livelihoods: they are constantly having to cut costs, produce more and more and squeeze margins on pain of coffee traders choosing to ignore their beans in favour of a cheaper offer – all so I can have my daily coffee.

In this light, it is not entirely clear whether or not my love of coffee has a net positive impact on Juan. However, if I decide to stop drinking coffee altogether, at least in the short-run it may put Juan in a serious bind as he will lose income. For the world is full of paradoxes, and economics is no stranger to them: although our economic systems very often disadvantage primary producers of goods and services, completely disengaging from these systems in protest may not help much and may in some cases make their lots even harder. Just as not giving money to a beggar is not necessarily noble or helpful – perhaps they would have spent the money on alcohol but you haven’t actually helped them. You only help them if you do something constructive (such as buying them a hot drink or memorising the details of a local frontline charity to direct them to) instead of merely not doing something potentially unhelpful.

Last month I observed that offering to pay more may not necessarily help either: the money would pass through many hands before it reaches Juan, with plenty of opportunities to slip through fingers along the way. What to do? Trying to source more directly from producers can help, when this is feasible (as with milk). When it is less so (as with coffee), another option is to buy from those cooperative organisations which can enable farmers to share the profits from later processing stages (among other useful roles), or to source from companies such as Cafédirect which buy from them. Certification schemes such as Fairtrade can also help, and even though they are far from perfect, part of their ineffectiveness derives from low demand from the consumer end.

No solution is perfect, just as giving a homeless person a coffee will not solve their problems. But then, demanding perfect solutions is unrealistic; what matters is whether they are more likely to help overall than resigned inaction. And at the very least we can also note that not all coffee is created equally – some are better for people and planet than others – which is why our choices as consumers deserve careful consideration: both whether to buy and what to buy.

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