Mark Glenn is a co-founder of Conscious Coffees alongside owners Craig and Laura Lamberty, a wholesome coffee roaster in Boulder, Colorado. In this article, Bartalks’ Dustin Bailey discuss ethics in the industry, including authentic sourcing and labelling. We have divided the article into 2 parts, the second in the series will be published next week.

It is going to require extra work to do the right thing

Coffee Sampler from www.consciouscoffees.com


Walking through the coffee aisle of a grocery store, you are bombarded with dozens of labels and certifications plastered on bags. Certifications about free trade, direct trade, fair trade, migratory bird certified, shade-grown, and the list goes on and on.

Who has the time to study each and every label out there on the market and which ones are actually benefiting the coffee growers?

With headlines of human rights issues and child slavery continually trickling into our news feed, the need for fair trade is essential but how can we keep up with the over-saturation of labelling in the industry?

Mark and his wife, Mel began roasting coffee in the early ’90s and the mission was fairly straightforward:

  • Roast great coffee
  • produce as little waste as possible
  • and make sure the growers get their share of the profits

Mark has a complete understanding of the supply chain from small roasters to the largest coffee corporations and although he has sold Conscious Coffees, he still remains active in pushing ethical coffee sourcing. He is a member of Coop Coffees which is a collaboration between many small scale coffee roasters sourcing from small scale coffee growers.

Photo by Christian Joudrey

The Interview

DB: What is the key to gaining traction for legitimate fair trade coffee roasters and growers? How do we make sure the legitimate fair trade networks are being supported?

MG: I knew you were going to ask some pretty heavy questions. The reason this is tricky is because it goes back a couple of decades. Back when fair trade was brought to this country for coffee, specifically, it was a successful program in Europe. Consumers were bought into it and it was working as a great alternative trading system for coffee compared to the New York Board of trade commodity trade system for coffee.

Back then, unfair trade was starting to make headlines in the media. For example, Nike1  was making headlines for child labor issues and it really turned our country upside down. It was one of the first things on a large scale that made consumers aware of the fact that I’m a consumer purchasing these shoes and supporting this. We as consumers realized there are a lot of unknowns behind the items we were purchasing

After the Fairtrade coffee system was established, we had to begin educating consumers about Fairtrade. Even to this day, consumers still make the mistake of calling it “free trade” coffee. That’s the exact opposite. Fairtrade was designed as a counter to free trade. Most of us haven’t become dedicated to the free trade model.

When we got the system off the ground, it was immediately successful. We got a lot of support from the consumers and we made our way into Whole Foods. I was there twice a week serving people these coffees and explaining to them what fair trade means, showing them pictures, and teaching the process.

Then something occurred that happens all the time in the capitalist system. We started to pull a little bit of the market share away from the big roasters and we are talking a fraction of a percentage. The point is consumers were paying premiums for the coffee and within a short period of time, that grassroots fair trade system got co-opted by the larger corporations.

Large roasters began creating their own ‘fair trade’ systems. Now, consumers started to see fair trade coffee in big box stores and the price (per bag) was going down and down and down. The big folks started to dictate what the boundaries would be. The minimum prices, the contract terms, etc. All the symbols showed up and consumers couldn’t tell the difference between the dozens of symbols.

It destroyed the grassroots movement.

The effects of these co-opted labels trickled down to the producers even for Co-op coffee. They were having a hard time driving the price of coffee up when ‘fair trade’ coffee had flooded the system and the legitimate fair trade systems had no way of proving their legitimacy to consumers.

The big boys who control free trade weren’t allowing them to increase the price per pound so Co-op coffee wanted to go direct to producers and have them sit at the table and contribute to discussions about the price of coffee. The minimum price with Fair Trade USA is $1.90 per pound of organic coffee.

There are others that are around $2.20 per pound which is a number brought up by producers. The producers said “We need $2.20 a pound just to make a living and keep farming

Getting consumers to buy into a truly alternative system is tricky. All these people are coming up with their own symbols and it’s like the word ‘natural’ in the natural food system. These things become really muddy and the thing is, consumers are fatigued.

They don’t have the energy anymore and they have too many choices so they don’t have the time to keep up with the labels. The thing that we do in Co-op coffee is we are traceable and 100% transparent.

Photo by Brigitte Tohm

For conscious consumers interested in doing the right thing, they need to align with a roaster who is completely transparent, then there is no guesswork involved. The consumer can once again build up their confidence with a roaster that is completely transparent. The large scale alternative trading system doesn’t even have this anymore. It’s all been co-opted by these large corporations. That’s the nature of the beast.

The original meaning is gone so it’s hard when there is no common language to use. With Co-op coffee as a green bean company, we have a better trade model. This better trade model is based on complete transparency and now the roasters can prove the contracts, testimonies from the families, and rely on genuine transparency to sell their coffee.

Unfortunately, our attention span as consumers is much smaller than it used to be and we have more choices than we know what to do with. Those two factors are the biggest challenges we have to contend with as a grassroots approach.

Direct trade is a great example. It doesn’t even mean direct trade anymore. It can mean the roaster bought it from an importer who bought it from an exporter, who bought it ‘direct’ from the farmer. Consumers see direct trade and think it is direct trade but it isn’t direct trade.

Next week, we’ll publish the second half of the interview where the conversation moves to discuss the organic movement.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *