Today, we live in a world in which people seek a greater sense of freedom, identity, and meaning. When we observe the way things seem to operate, it appears that, behind the scenes, there lies an intriguing reality, a clearly defined and organised system of gears which enable society to happen with apparent order. There is a clear food chain.
People and companies are controlled by governments through laws and taxes, we need passports and visas to travel beyond our own borders, bigger nations control smaller ones with weapons, money, and food and financial institutions manipulate us through debt and interest rates.
In order to keep the voices of dissent to a minimum, those in power dish out ‘treats’, compromises designed to appease the masses and maintain the status quo. So it is in our coffee world. We have things like ‘fair trade, rainforest alliance, and sustainable practices’ to protect the environment and those people and places who produce the base products that generate profits in the West. However, these ‘treats’ do not seem to be working anymore. The price of coffee is at an all-time low, way below the US$1 per pound mark, significantly less than what it costs to produce, taking into account low labour costs, a time when global coffee sales are at an all-time high, and consumption is growing at an exceptional pace. We seem more interested on the sustainable agenda, in compostable coffee cups, and packaging than we are in those who provide the content of the cup.
How could that be, when the basic law of economics dictates that increase in demand should warrant higher prices at times when supply is constrained? The core issue lies in the fact that pricing is not dictated by the seller in this case, but by the buyer. In the world of global commodities, pricing is more often dictated by buyers rather than producers. There are a few exceptions of course like oil, where the price is dictated by the producers/sellers who formed an alliance called the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
In bygone times, people could buy a wife for between five to 10 cocoa beans in Mexico, depending on her beauty. African kings used to exchange people for weapons. I do not know what the going value of human life was at the time, but American Indians sold their land for weapons and alcohol, and are now confined on isolated ‘reservations’ with gambling licences. A fair trade?
So why don’t governments protect their farmers better and ensure that inherent profit benefits all as opposed to the privileged few? We have global institutions that police unfairness and promote the wellbeing of all, like the United Nations, and in our coffee world, Rainforest Alliance and other ‘ethical’ coffee organisations do this with varying degrees of success.
But how does one determine what fair is? Green coffee buyers at large companies receive conflicting messages: buy fair but optimise profit at the same time, which sounds like an oxymoron. And corporate social responsibility is also a misnomer in that responsibility can only be linked to individuals or our conscience risks being dumped onto an unsuspecting neighbour.
This leads to people deserting their farms in search of better lives. Far from being an exodus driven by greed, this is a quest for survival as selling products for less than they cost to make results in abject poverty and despair.
The truth is that we live in a broken society, a world governed by greed. This desire for more leads to only one destination – the oblivion of those who cannot fend for themselves.
Today, those people are leaving what they know for the unknown of distant shores, having given up on their way of life, in search of survival. The reason why this is happening is that the West has spent centuries pillaging the wealth of developing nations, keeping them down while their economies flourish. This has created a chasm between the haves and have nots, with the blessing of local leaders who were more intent on filling their own pockets than defending those they had a mandate to protect.
In my opinion, fairness is the wrong objective. How can one determine what fair is in any situation? How can fairness be defined as a word when everyone involved has an obvious conflict of interest, which is to optimise personal outcome? We should be talking about justice, social justice, that no man/woman can be exploited by others under the realm of economic or political capitalism. Justice dictates that sellers/growers should control their own destiny and determine their worth, value of their work. If bankers can accumulate exorbitant amounts of wealth for taking risks with other people’s money, farmers should at least be able to make a small profit, benefit from the sweat of their brows.
Well-meaning global organisations should not only protect but also empower those who suffer, giving them a chance to rise above and find their place in the sun too. Why not create local, regional alliances, teach them the power of brand, elevate the value of their goods, and become a player rather than a victim, sit at the top table and negotiate their worth with those who call themselves fair? In the French wine world, why are certain wines worth more than others? Is Chateau Petrus really worth five to 10 times more than its neighbours? Reality often reflects what we believe and what we believe is influenced by what we are told. Petrus is worth this much because we have been led to believe that it is that much better by those who control the levers of value.
At ‘origin’, of course, we must rewrite the story we find ourselves in. Make people believe in their own worth, create a new identity, an empowered one. Help farmers believe for more, be prepared to defend their cause, play ‘hard ball’.
Imagine a world where transactions are conducted through block chains, driven by accountability and transparency and away from the grasp of those who seek control.
Imagine a world in which people can believe in their self-worth and no longer aspire to become the lead in a film that does not matter or even exist.
Imagine a world where people realise the true purpose of creation, the communion between the before, the now, and the hereafter.
Imagine a time when leaders realise that they are meant to serve those they represent and act accordingly. A time when we really believe that things can and must change.
How do we trigger this paradigm shift in thinking? Greed is a powerful force and power a great aphrodisiac so those in control will not relinquish the current state of things with a whimper. Philosophers and artists today, the former conscience of our society, no longer occupy seats of influence as they focus more on form than substance. In my opinion, change begins with a picture, a vision. This, of course, requires power, the mere and peaceful power of imagination.
“Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect, as well as for the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.” ― Albert Einstein