Students Should Acknowledge Ethical Downsides of Coffee

Chloe Vassot, Columnist

On college campuses across the country, and especially at Oberlin, you can be sure of coming across that ever-present couple: the student and the coffee cup.

Whether you prefer DeCafé or Slow Train, add a heap of sugar or take it black, coffee is often a polarizing topic — but not, I’ll argue, for the right reasons.

There are generally two opposing opinions on this ubiquitous beverage: One either loves it with an almost unsettling fervency, arguing passionately that it is a daily necessity, or rejects it as an unnecessary stimulant, taking the supposed moral high ground of caffeine abstinence. (As someone who admits a dependence on espresso beans for general daily functioning, I stand firmly in the former group.)

However, coffee should not be polarizing because of strong divergences in personal taste, but for ethical reasons. For all our progressivism and dedication to social justice, coffee tends to miss the harsh gaze of our critical eye. It’s so easy to forgive or ignore the flaws of a thing you love.

The most obvious side effect of our intense coffee consumption is the creation of waste. Though the sleeve of a Slow Train to-go cup is certified compostable and the plastic lid is recyclable, the cup itself is relegated to the trash due to how it’s constructed. Though this wastefulness is obvious and well-known, the convenience of paper cups is powerful, and thus, the to-go cup reigns across campus.

The other troubling part of coffee is the controversy surrounding its production. Like any large-scale commodity grown primarily in developing nations and consumed by a rapacious international market, it has its flaws.

The United States is the largest overall consumer of coffee in the world, and the increased demand for this adored bean has not been entirely beneficial for the growers and laborers responsible for keeping our collective addiction possible.

As the international human rights organization Global Exchange has noted, the United States and others funded and encouraged a change in coffee cultivation. The switch was one from traditional, naturally biodiverse, “shade-grown” methods to the agricultural “green revolution”–inspired “sun cultivation” techniques, which rely on massive deforestation and pesticide use to create higher coffee yields.

Ironically, the deforestation that is allowing for greater yields is directly contributing to the current rate of climate change, which could jeopardize coffee’s future feasibility as a mass-produced crop.

On the environmental issue, it’s tempting to point to the surging popularity of certified organic and “shade-grown” coffee as easy solutions to the problem. However, this type of cultivation is not the global norm, and rates of deforestation for coffee productions in places like Sumatra are still increasing.

Similarly, it’s easy to think that the now-mainstream popularity of fair trade coffee, where farmers and laborers can earn an appropriate and fair profit, is leading to diminishing the problem of labor exploitation in the industry. But unfortunately, not all fair trade certifications carry the same weight or assurances of an ethically traded product, and Oberlin itself provides an example of this.

Caruso’s Coffee, the brand sold by Oberlin College in DeCafé and at the Science Center cart, is a “certified fair trade” product — but its certification comes from Fair Trade USA, a nonprofit organization that left the Fairtrade International organization in order to loosen its requirements and allow a wider range of coffee growing operations to qualify for “fair trade” certification. This means that large coffee plantations, the ones that flourish under “sun cultivation” techniques and have been noted for their poor working conditions, can now be defined as “fair trade.” This widening of the meaning of “fair trade” diminishes what those two words tell consumers about the conditions in which coffee is grown.

On the other hand, Equal Exchange, another fair trade–certifying organization, has even stricter requirements for a “fair trade” designation than Fairtrade International does, making the range of meanings for “fair trade” even wider. Defining the ethical circumstances of coffee production is becoming more ambiguous.

So what is a coffee lover to do? For many, quitting coffee is not an option, nor should it have to be. There are small ways to reduce the negative effects of coffee consumption, such as using reusable mugs and getting 25 cents back by using one at DeCafé. The important thing is to be aware of what kind of industry you are supporting by your choices. Any fair trade designation is better than none, and if you’d rather not contribute to deforestation, do the research on which countries do the least harm in their cultivation methods. One’s enthusiasm for coffee does not exist in a moral vacuum, and that’s the unfortunate reality a progressive campus needs to acknowledge.