USFT Campaigns for Fair Trade at University of Houston

June 18, 2008

Posted by Chris O’Brien

My brother, Tim O’Brien, is at it again on campus at the University of Houston. He’s been waging a campaign to get the school to convert to fair trade ever since he started a chapter of United Students for Fair Trade there about two years ago.

USFT Universoty of Houston protest

Tim first tried the conventional channels – he got himself elected to the student government where he succeeded in passing a resolution calling for fair trade coffee on campus. Then he worked through the administration and the dining services company, Aramark, and managed to get some commitments and a minimum level of fair trade offerings made available on campus.

But these nominal successes were not enough – why accept a few token sides of chips and dip instead of going for the whole enchilada? So in recent months he’s taken the campaign to the next level by conducting attention-getting direct action events like the one he pulled off yesterday. He rallied a crew of about 20 students and delivered a giant papier mache coffee bean to University Chancellor Renu Khator’s office. Khator was out of the office but the police were called in anyway to hustle those pesky students away – and their giant coffee bean too!

Read the whole story in today’s Houston Chronicle.


The Grassroots take on NAFTA

June 17, 2008

By Chris Treter

We’re 14 years into NAFTA and many throughout the U.S. don’t know what the North American Free TradeManifestation at the Other Campaign in Chiapas, Mexico Agreement (NAFTA) is or have forgotten its’ significance. That isn’t true south of the border where the gap between the rich and poor continue to grow at an alarming rate.

Meanwhile, 2008 sees the governments of Canada, the United States, and Mexico working on the Security and Prosperity Partnership. However, from the looks of the advisory board which include the CEO of Walmart and 28 big businesses, security and prosperity for all in North American seem to be far from its objectives.

In multiple visits to Mexico in the past decade we’ve
been witnesses to the lasting negative impacts of neoliberal economic policies manifested within NAFTA. From increased migration in southern corn and coffee growing communities to diminishing mom and pop shops being replaced with big box stores, cultural assimilation is on the move and the grassroots are fighting back. Check out “Reclaiming Corn and Culture” in YES! Magazine by Wendy Call to learn more about the role coffee cooperative are playing to support community sustainability.

Delicious Peace

June 16, 2008

Posted by Chris O’Brien

In 2000, I visited coffee farmers in Mbale, Uganda. Then a few months ago at the 2008 SCAA conference in Minneapolis I learned about an extraordinary group of farmers in that same region who formed a coffee cooperative comprised of Jews, Christians, and Muslims intent on improving their access to the market while advocating religious peace. Mbale is just barely on the outskirts of where the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group of self-proclaimed Christian guerrillas, has conducted armed attacks against civilians for over twenty years.

I know that I was not the only one with moist eyes in the conference room when Thanksgiving Coffee owner Paul Katzeff played this movie trailer about collaborating with the Mirembe Kawomera (Delicious Peace’) cooperative to import their coffee to the U.S.

Coffee, Harbinger of Storms

June 15, 2008

Coffee RevolutionPosted by Chris O’Brien

(This post is a work in progress that will probably appear in some form in the forthcoming book being written by the three people who publish this blog. I welcome your feedback and specifically seek information about other ‘revolutions’ associated with coffee.)

Unlike water, which is found (in varying quantities) everywhere, and wine and beer which are brewed from native plants anywhere, coffee cultivation originated uniquely in one place: the western highlands of Ethiopia. Since its earliest cultivation outside this birthplace, coffee has followed or caused political upheaval.

In his 1935 classic, Coffee: The Epic of a Commodity, H.E. Jacob called coffee the “harbinger of storms.” Antony Wild titled his 2004 book on beans, Coffee: A Dark History.

Why such sinister views on a matter as mundane as a mug of joe? As you’ll see, the story of coffee is tainted with terror and transgression. Revolutions have indeed been sown by the coming of coffee. The powerful and the impoverished have each been stirred to arms over the commerce of coffee.

One version of the coffee origin myth in Yemen attributes its unwelcome arrival to an Ethiopian invasion in 525 CE. Since then, coffee has come to cover the globe through conquest and trade. In 1517, Khair Bey, viceroy of Mecca, claimed coffee drinking “led to riots” and forbade its consumption. In 1537, residents of Cairo were prohibited from enjoying coffee in places of public entertainment. Charles II of England considered the coffee houses of London “hot beds of sedition and a breeding ground for subversive movements” and ordered them closed in 1675.

The drink even played a role in the American Revolution. In 1789, just after his swearing in oath, the triumphant first President of the United States, George Washington, was received by well-wishers at the Merchants coffee house in New York. But Merchants was more than a convenient place for a reception, it was also known by some as “the birthplace of the Union,” due to the role it served during the Revolution as a gathering place for plotting patriots.

Just months later, on July 12, 1789, French rabble-rouser Camille Desmoulins climbed atop a café table and goaded a Parisian coffeehouse crowd into storming the Bastille, thus touching off the French Revolution.

In America, the 1950s-60s saw the Beat Generation congregate in coffee houses, leading an artistic and intellectual revolution that contributed to the eventual overhaul of gender roles and restrictions, and assisted in the overthrow of the legal system of racial segregation, among many other dramatic changes provoked by a caffeine-fueled culture.

Today, coffee is at the heart of an indigenous people’s revolution in Mexico. It also makes its way into the marketing of specialty roasters such as Just Coffee, a company that even incorporates the notion into their slogan: “Not just a market but a movement.” Roasters like Just Coffee are, in fact, part of a larger and growing movement advocating radical changes in the rules of the global coffee trade.

Coffee Companies Help Launch ‘B Corporation’ Standards for ‘Good Companies’

June 8, 2008

Posted by Chris O’Brien

B Corporation

B Corporation is a new certification system for socially and environmentally responsible companies. The ‘B’ stands for ‘benefits.’

I couldn’t find out much about the people behind this effort, apparently a non-profit group called B-Lab, but the standards seem legit from what I can tell so far. The founding companies are a cast of the usual suspects – many are names that are already highly associated with the ‘responsible’ business movement. On the one hand, that is a good thing – it means companies with real commitments are the ones being recognized by the certification. But on the other hand it raises the question of whether this is a well-intentioned effort that will never reach beyond the same core of businesses that are already doing the right thing.

But perhaps this is a good thing. An article in the Financial Times reports that Coen Gilbert, one of B-Corp’s founders, intends for the certification to serve as a way for the many small and medium sized ‘truly green’ companies to differentiate themselves from the older, bigger companies that are suddenly talking green for the first time.

Of the more than 100 ‘founding’ B-Corp companies, a few are in the coffee biz: Moka Joe; Mugshots Coffee House and Cafe; One Village Coffee; and Pura Vida Coffee. To become certified, each company completes a survey evaluating their practices. A minimum score of 80, out of a possible 200, is required to receive certification. In addition, the company bylaws or articles of incorporation must specifically require consideration be given to all the company stakeholders, including employees past and present, suppliers, customers, and the communities and society in which the business operates.

Moka JoeThe completed company audits are available for viewing online. That way interested stakeholders can see that, for example, One Village Coffee scored a measly 9.1 points on the environmental section of the assessment, which is just 24% of the points available in that category, and that they barely squeaked through the certification at all with just 86.1 points total. Whereas Pura Vida earned 32% of the environmental points and scored 103.4 on the evaluation overall. But Moka Joe performed considerably better than both, meriting 90% of the environmental points and reaching an impressive (comparatively) 129.4 on the test as a whole.

I realize the aim of this system probably isn’t to compare the certified businesses to each other, but rather to differentiate them all from the business-as-usual pack. However, the website that houses the reports is a little clumsy – there is no easy way to compare companies to each other but more importantly, there is no way to know how individual company scores relate to average industry performance. Another problem is that the information is presented only in summary form – we see how a company scored but we don’t know why they earned that score.

I do, however, like the scheme overall. The site refers to the current system as Version 1 and claims that Version 2 is already in development. I’m impressed so far and look forward to seeing how they improve this useful tool in the future.

To read more about B Corporation and to access company reports, go to and click on the ‘B Community’ tab. Currently, the only way to search for reports is to either browse company names at random or to use a key word search. I typed in ‘coffee’ and found the four above-mentioned companies.

Talking Trash about Coffee

May 16, 2008


Posted by Chris O’Brien

An article in the Seattle Times this past Wednesday claims that Starbucks’ vice president of corporate social responsibility “knows it’s an issue” that the company’s coffee cups are single-use disposable trash that can’t be recycled.

The company’s 2.5 billion paper cups used in North American stores last year contain 10% post consumer waste (PCW) recycled fiber content, and the cup sleeves contain 60% PCW content; both attributes are improvements considering that the cups used to be 100% virgin and “double-cupping” was a common wasteful practice that was mostly made obsolete by the sleeves.

But the cups are still lined with plastic, and that makes them non-recyclable. There are new coffee cups on the market, like the ecotainer (which I wrote about here), that replace that plastic lining with a starch-based material, which makes them compostable. But a compostable cup does not compost make. Just like a ‘recyclable’ aluminum can has to actually be recycled in order to gain the benefit of its recycability, so a compostable cup needs to enter a composting system in order to realize its environmental advantages. That’s a bit of a challenge since composting infrastructure is fairly limited in the U.S.

However, it is certainly possible to arrange composting services independently, and there is a growing number of compostable products: food serviceware, garbage liners, and packaging products. The Biodegradable Products Institute website lists all the companies with products that meet the BPI standard for compostability. Only products that meet these standards are allowed to display the BPI logo (seen here at top). Composting is a heady matter, requiring specific conditions regarding light, temperature and moisture. In other words, simply tossing a cup in landfill and waiting decades or centuries for it to degrade doesn’t count.

Bottoms Up!My prediction is that government will eventually provide composting services the same way it now offers recycling services in many places. Meanwhile, I like the approach taken by Higher Grounds (my co-bloggers here at BeanActivist). They simply don’t offer disposable cups. Instead, if you forget to bring your own reusable mug, they’ll give you one! That’s right, they’ll give you a ceramic mug to takeaway. How can they afford that? Simple answer: craigslist. They post want ads for free coffee mugs on craigslist. Imagine all the tacky, unloved mugs stuffing cupboards across America, like that “bottoms-up” mug you received at your bachelor party from your high school buddy. Now imagine someone who is willing to take them away from you for free and put them to good use. It’s simply brilliant.

Don’t expect Starbucks to attempt this novel approach any time soon. They are currently experimenting with the compostable variety so we’ll have to see what happens.

At last! Fill up your gas tank with spent Coffee Grounds

May 16, 2008
Now this is what we’ve all been waiting for. Our love of great coffee may someday fuel our addiction to cars!
Cafe Racer Touted as a “carbon negative” vehicle, the 1975 GMC pick-up known as the Cafe Racer is fueled by spent coffee grounds (or most trash) through a process known as gasification.

‘What is gasification? Gasification is the general term used for processes where heat is used to transform solid biomass into a “natural gas like” flammable fuel. Through gasification, we can take nearly any solid biomass waste and convert it into a clean burning, carbon neutral, gaseous fuel. Whether starting with wood scraps or coffee grounds, municipal trash or junk tires, the end product is a flexible gaseous fuel you can burn in your gasoline engine, cooking stove, heating furnace and/or flamethrower.’ (click here for more info on the Cafe Racer)