What We Say When We Say Nothing
Who the coffee industry chooses to support, and who it ignores, speaks volumes.
Before we begin: the situation in Gaza is horrific, and getting more awful by the day. A captive population of mostly children is being bombed into oblivion, and our leaders are standing by. Palestinians need our help. Please go to ceasefiretoday.com and call on your elected representatives in the US and internationally to push for an immediate ceasefire. Thank you.
Who is coffee for? How does the coffee industry decide which causes to support, when to speak out and when to stay silent?
It is also a product grown and processed in countries across the Global South and consumed primarily in the Global North. The hundreds of billions of dollars in profit stay in the consuming countries with the roasting and manufacturing companies that control the industry, trickling back to origin in the form of infrastructure projects and micro-loan initiatives. This leads to obvious power and income imbalances, often leaving farmers and producing countries reliant on the generosity of the companies they sell to.
Especially within the higher-end specialty segment of the industry, companies place a lot of emphasis on supporting producers and advocating for their rights and welfare. But coffee is also political (despite those who claim the opposite) and because the industry stretches across borders it often interacts with events or conflicts that demand a response.
How the industry responds, or in recent weeks how it stays silent, is indicative of those power imbalances.
The Coffee Community Steps Up
On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine and kicked off “the worst conflict on the continent since World War II,” according to France 24. The war, which is ongoing, caused hundreds of thousands of casualties, both civilian and military, and resulted in over six million refugees globally along with another eight million displaced within Ukraine.
Along with many others, the coffee industry immediately voiced support for the Ukrainian cause and condemnation of Russia. “Nestlé Nespresso Supports Ukraine,” read a post on Nespresso’s website. Companies including Starbucks and Keurig Dr Pepper shut down their Russia operations or stopped selling in the country. Then-Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson “condemn[ed] the horrific attacks on Ukraine by Russia.” Coffee news media wrote stories about fundraisers for Ukraine and how the war was affecting the country’s coffee industry.
The Specialty Coffee Association posted a statement of solidarity with Ukraine, and pledged to donate the ticket sale proceeds from the upcoming World of Coffee event in Warsaw (subsequently moved to Milan) to “supporting relief efforts for Ukrainian coffee businesses and coffee professionals.” The SCA also “made the difficult decision to suspend Russia’s participation in the World Coffee Championships.”
The war in Ukraine is still a nightmare of cruelty and war crimes, and the coffee community stepping up to support those impacted was the right thing to do. But Ukraine is a Western ally and received military aid from the US and others, while Russia quickly became a pariah state, subject to sanctions and almost complete diplomatic isolation.
No Response is a Response
Contrast its reaction to the invasion of Ukraine with the coffee industry’s response to the conflict in Gaza. After Hamas militants launched a deadly attack into southern Israel on October 7, 2023, Israel responded with overwhelming force. As well as cutting off food, water, and power to the strip, a barrage of airstrikes over the past month has decimated Gaza. Israeli airstrikes and a ground incursion have killed more than 10,000 Palestinians, including over 4,000 children as of Tuesday, November 6.
Despite growing calls for a ceasefire, and warnings over a potential genocide in Gaza, the United States, United Kingdom, and Israel’s other allies in the West have not wavered in their support, while Israel has refused to stop its bombing campaign.
In the face of this horror, the coffee industry has been largely silent. Individual companies and coffee professionals have voiced their support for Palestine, but it’s not many and not nearly as widespread as in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The SCA has been silent. And it’s not like there is no coffee in Gaza—in fact, there are multiple specialty coffee shops in the tiny strip of blockaded land.
Then there is Starbucks, which took Israel’s bombing of Gaza as an opportunity to engage in some anti-union activity. The company sued Workers United over a social media post expressing solidarity with Palestine and claimed it “reflect[ed] their support for violence perpetrated by Hamas.” The union countersued for defamation. This exchange highlights the pressure many feel to stay silent, or else face legal, reputational, or career harm.
Another major problem is that, like many others, the coffee industry tends to move like a herd, and groupthink can quickly take over. The industry feeds on trends and fads—beanless coffee, anyone?—and the same can be said of its advocacy. Take the example of sustainability: at one point carbon neutral certifications were all the rage; then it was living incomes; then regenerative agriculture. These things are all good, of course—well, apart from the carbon neutral certifications—it’s just interesting to note how fickle and fast-moving the industry’s attention can be.
When it comes to corporate advocacy, it’s much easier to only focus on what everyone else is already focusing on. But what we choose to ignore also speaks volumes.
Consider Ethiopia: the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea on one side and Tigray rebels on the other began in 2020 and raged for two years, until both sides agreed to a ceasefire in 2022. The hostilities killed upwards of 600,000 people, and caused a major humanitarian crisis and famine. Despite the ceasefire, there have still been outbreaks of violence and Eritrean troops still control parts of Tigray, with one local priest telling the Guardian, “there has been no improvement for us since the peace.”
The war also took a massive economic toll, with the cost to rebuild put at $20 billion, and affected the 2021/22 coffee harvest in some parts of the country. Coffee is fundamental to Ethiopia’s economy, generating more than 30% of the country’s exports. Because buyers purchase coffee in foreign currency, which the Ethiopian government needs to fund its activities, some companies became concerned that their purchases could be used to acquire weapons and fuel further suffering.
Pact Coffee, for example, stopped sourcing coffee from Ethiopia at the beginning of the war. “By refraining from buying Ethiopian coffee since the war began,” the company wrote, “we aim to draw the world’s attention to this tragic situation.” But what happens to Ethiopian coffee farmers if companies stop buying their coffee? Fifteen million people in Ethiopia rely on coffee for their livelihoods. Where were the fundraisers for Ethiopia?
Coffee is Political
Coffee is political. No matter the admonishments—“stick to coffee”, “stay in your lane”—the truth is that politics is ingrained in the very history of coffee, from the slave trade and colonization to the fact that many countries banned coffeehouses because they were afraid of the discussions happening within.
In 2017, Sprudge organized a nationwide coffee fundraiser for the American Civil Liberties Union, in response to the Trump administration’s travel ban from majority Muslim countries. “Like a hot mug of drip coffee spilled on a crisp white apron,” Sprudge wrote, “these actions are a dark stain on our national conscience, and as Americans, we feel compelled to stand up against them.”
Some of specialty coffee’s leading lights signed up for the fundraiser. Together, 862 cafes from 511 brands raised over $400,000 to help the ACLU, and Sprudge did it again in 2018 to benefit the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project. Then in 2020 the coffee (and wider food) industry raised money to help the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
The point is, coffee is political, and coffee companies can be political when it suits them. These fundraisers were a positive version of the groupthink that can often affect coffee—when the industry puts its collective mind to something, it can make a big difference.
It is in the most difficult times, like when a nuclear power backed by the most powerful country in history is blockading and bombing a captive population, where that resourcefulness and togetherness is most important. Hopefully the industry can rediscover its voice.