30 Sep 2019

Bringing Fairtrade and the specialty coffee sector closer together

An Interview with Paul Katzeff, CEO of Thanksgiving Coffee and a founder of the Specialty Coffee Association of America

2019 Paul Katzeff Thanksgiving Coffee 870
Paul Katzeff talks to Corina Picado, a producer member of Uca Miraflor Cooperative in Nicaragua, one of the cooperatives Thangsgiving Coffee sources from.
Image © Thanksgiving Coffee

Thanksgiving Coffee is one of the first specialty coffee roasters in the United States, founded in 1972 in California. The company was also one of the very first coffee roasters to become a Fairtrade licensee in North America, in the early 2000s. The high quality coffee that Thanksgiving Coffee sells is sourced from Fairtrade certified cooperatives across the world, from Central America to Sumatra.

Its CEO and founder, Paul Katzeff, is also one of the founders of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and has served two terms as its President. In this position, he has actively sought to integrate sustainability and Fairtrade principles into the mission and vision of the SCAA.

Fairtrade International talked with him about his experience with Fairtrade, the specialty coffee movement and the challenges that threaten the future of the coffee sector.

Fairtrade: Your company became a Fairtrade licensee back in 2001. How has your partnership with Fairtrade International benefited Thanksgiving Coffee?

Fairtrade was a great help in the early days of the social justice movement. It codified our approach to the purchase of green coffee. With Fairtrade as an independent, third-party certifier, I was able to end my own publicity campaign around what I was doing to further the cause of social justice in producer communities and join something bigger than my own individual company.

Certainly, being able to use the Fairtrade Mark on my packaging and promotions was a benefit to sales to an emerging consumer demographic. I was better able to support my own message by pointing out that I was part of something bigger than Thanksgiving Coffee alone. We partnered with Fairtrade to help us define our values and then project them out into the wider community, which allowed us to increase consumer loyalty and grow our customer base.

From there, our message became clear: “A coffee farmer will love their trees when they provide food, clothing, shelter, education and health care for their family. When a farmer loves their trees, they will care for them in a way that produces fine quality and flavour.” Basically, the secret to great coffee lies in the welfare of the farmer and their family. I have supported that notion since 1985, but when Fairtrade certification became available in the US, my job became so much easier and my message that much stronger.

You are one of the founders of SCAA and served as its president for two terms. In this role, you were very vocal about the need to incorporate a sustainability dimension to specialty coffee. Can you tell us about this experience?

In 1998 I chaired a SCAA committee called ‘defining sustainability in the coffee sector’. It was challenging due to the fact that we knew that economic justice was a critical issue with no clear path toward a solution.

In 2000, when I was serving one of my terms as president of the SCAA, I formed a task force to bring together supporters of the Fairtrade movement with the SCAA leadership. My goal was the integration of Fairtrade principles within the mission of the organisation. We used these principles as a platform and reference point to address the growing calls within the industry to address unfair labour and trade practices within our supply networks. The specialty coffee community benefited from these vigorous debates, resulting in an increased focus on the farmer’s role and the need for a fair economy that supported the very beginning of our complex supply chains. Fairtrade is perhaps the most important concept to impact the purchases and preferences of the next generation of coffee consumers.

Your company has actively engaged to unlock the potential of specialty coffee among coffee farmers. Is there a project you are especially proud of?

I am especially proud of the project to introduce cupping labs into Nicaraguan smallholder cooperatives in 1999, providing farmers with vital tools of their trade and enabling them to assess the value of their coffees relative to those from other regions or even different countries. This USAID-funded project was instrumental in helping to unlock the added value that specialty coffee could bring to supply chains worldwide. It enabled dry mills to separate coffee according to its quality, driving additional revenue to the very beginning of these supply chains. It enabled farmers to taste their own coffee for the very first time and to feel pride in their work. It also allowed for a common language to be shared by farmers, exporters, importers, traders, roasters and eventually even consumers. Suddenly, consumers were being offered coffees from distinctive terroirs and even individual farms. The specialty coffee industry expanded exponentially because it became that much more interesting and complex. It also happened to coincide with a growing awareness of the Fairtrade certification in the US, which led to a shift in the industry, away from being product-centric toward a more people-centric conversation. I am proud to have partnered with Fairtrade to enable this shift.

What do you see as the greatest challenge to the global coffee sector today?

The greatest challenge to the coffee industry is the current pricing structure. It responds to the needs of everyone in the supply chain except the producer. The prevailing price is impacted by speculation, commodity trading and specific technical, instead of fundamental, needs. The traditional drivers of supply and demand are being distorted by the ability of outside investors to influence the market through mechanisms that distort the reality of these traditional anchors, putting farmers at increased risk due to factors outside of their control.

One of the unfortunate results of this system is the loss of the next generation of coffee farmers, who are increasingly moving to urban centres due to a pricing system that provides little incentive for them to continue in the family tradition. Fairtrade is one way that we can guarantee a continued focus on these critical issues. The Fairtrade Minimum Price is a good approach toward resolving the fundamental inequality within the current system of trade. However, we need to keep our focus on what is needed to provide a true living income for this generation of farmers as well as the next. I believe that the Fairtrade movement is a way we can bring pricing more closely in line with the actual costs of production, improving the lives of farming families around the world.

In addition, I would hope that coffee farmers realise that to be solely dependent on coffee for their livelihood is not a good survival plan. In my view, monoculture export crops are notoriously bad for farmers. Integrating food production for family consumption is as essential as having a second and third crop to complement coffee.