Fair trade coffee goes mainstream
A story I did for the Vancouver Sun about fair trade coffee.
Fair trade coffee goes mainstream
When Kim Schachte and her husband Lloyd Bernhardt decided to adopt a baby from Guatemala in 1999, they didn’t know their entire life was about to change. But change it did, and it wasn’t just the typical adjustments new parents have to make.
“Our first trip down there was just to go and meet Mia, she was three weeks old by the time we got down there. And we just fell in love,” says Schachte. For many parents who adopt kids internationally, the connection with the child’s birth country tapers off early.
But not for Bernhardt and Schachte, who have since turned their personal and professional lives towards Guatemala.
Schachte, who left her job as a graphic designer just before adopting Mia, talks about their desire to “find something that was more meaningful, for work, and also some way to connect ourselves to the community, the Guatemalan community.”
After some research, the couple stumbled across coffee. It seemed like a natural fit: The caffeinated beans are Guatemala’s most important export, and the most popular drink in Canada, after tap water.
“I think at that point, we weren’t really that familiar with fair-trade coffee, and we started learning more about that and it kind of all just fell into place,” says Schachte.
In 2003, the couple founded Ethical Bean, an organic, fair- trade coffee company that buys green coffee beans from cooperatives in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Peru, and roasts them in Vancouver.
According to the Canadian Coffee Association, drinking coffee is a daily activity for 63 per cent of Canadians, who drink most of their coffee at home, in the morning. The association has also found that awareness about fair trade and organic coffee has grown significantly since 2001.
Schachte’s and Bernhardt’s push into the coffee market was in synch with changing consumer attitudes, and Ethical Bean has been part of what’s moved organic, fair-trade coffee in British Columbia from a niche commodity to a mainstream product.
Fair-trade coffee is certified though an international monitoring program, and guarantees prices that permit producers to cover their costs and make a small return. Shade-grown organic coffee means workers are not exposed to toxic chemicals and pesticides, and that there is less soil contamination and erosion.
Bernhardt estimates that in 1999, when they first started to look into importing coffee, producers were paid about 80 cents a pound, even though the finished product was selling for $14 on the shelves in Vancouver. Today, the minimum price per pound of fair trade organic coffee in Central America sits at $1.56, which represents an incremental improvement on the free market price. “All of our coffees are purchased well above the fair trade organic minimum price,” says Bernhardt.
“The cost wasn’t that much more, so we could still be competitive with conventional coffees and have a fair-trade, organic alternative,” says Bernhardt.
“Kim’s a graphic designer so we looked at this as a branding exercise as well, and wanted to make a fair-trade, organic coffee more accessible to a mainstream audience,” he says.
Not to say the couple hasn’t faced any hurdles in the quest to bring quality coffee to British Columbians.
“Roasting coffee is more than just buying coffee, making it brown and then packaging it,” says Bernhardt, who traded a fast-paced technology career for the coffee world.
“I spent almost 20 years dealing with virtual products, so you know, feeling, touching, smelling, tasting coffee is amazing, because it’s both an art and a science,” he says.
Finding just the right coffee roast was among the challenges Ethical Bean faced when the company first started out. Today, it employs one of Canada’s top coffee graders at its East Vancouver roastery.
Ethical Bean has grown rapidly over the last five years, and it now employs more than 20 people in the Lower Mainland. The coffee is sold at close to 1,000 retailers throughout the province, including Costco, Safeway and London Drugs. Bernhardt estimates that the company sold 600,000 pounds of coffee last year.
The coffee business isn’t the only thing that’s grown: Mia is a healthy, energetic nine-year-old, and she has a younger brother named Samuel, whom the couple adopted from Texas. He’s six, almost the same age as Ethical Bean.
“We thought we’d, you know, adopt our second child and start a new business at the same time…” starts Bernhardt. “Because we don’t have anything else to do!” interrupts Schachte, laughing.
Guatemala’s population sits at just over 13 million, many of whom are landless or unemployed, and living in poverty. The country was the site of a 36-year internal conflict that ended in 1996, leaving more than 200,000 people dead; more than 50,000 have disappeared.
In December, Ethical Bean donated $1 for every pound of coffee sold to children’s education projects in Guatemala, splitting the $20,000 proceeds between an organization called Child Aid and another called Project Somos.
Giving to children’s organizations is more than just charity for Bernhardt and Schachte. It’s also a chance for their daughter to connect to her roots.
“We hope to take them down there and visit Project Somos when it’s up and running, so that she can put some of those pieces together, some of the adoption pieces, but also her culture,” says Schachte.
Among the couple’s future plans are to grow the business east of the Rockies, expand south of the border and try to get their product into more food service establishments.
The company already supplies coffee to the University of B.C., providing a fair trade fix for students on the Point Grey campus.
“From our perspective, it’s been a very good shift simply from a business perspective, from a communications and public relations perspective, and also it feels good to be buying something that we know is supporting a positive, healthy and fair work environment,” says Andrew Parr, the director of UBC’s food services.
Would the university consider going back to free-trade coffee? “Absolutely not,” says Parr.
Peter Kent, Canada’s secretary of state for foreign affairs, recently visited Guatemala to push for the continuation of free-trade agreement negotiations between Canada and Central America. But when it comes to a free-trade deal, “I don’t think it’s going to affect us,” says Bernhardt.
“The fair-trade movement is global already, and it’s an understanding between the trading partners in the different countries,” he says.
Special to the Sun