“Models matter,” a long-time wholesale customer recently told us. We had asked her the question: “Why do you keep buying coffee from us?”
In the face of so much competition nowadays- where local coffee roasteries are popping up in small-towns across the U.S., coffee quality is getting increasingly better across-the-board and the term ‘Fair Trade’ has (in many ways) been co-opted to mean far less than what the alternative trade movement once stood for, we wanted to know why she kept buying from us.
She replied, “Models matter. You guys do what you say do. You are truly partnered with the farmers, and you tell the truth.”
During our 12-year relationship with this customer, she and her co-workers have traveled on 8 overseas trips to visit 12 farmer cooperatives with us. She’s received numerous visits from coffee-industry folks, seen our long-term relationships with small-scale farmers, supported our commitment to organics and verified our higher-than-normal purchasing prices online (www.ourcoffeepath.com). She’s convinced that we do business differently than the status-quo, and that is valuable to her. Models matter.
We agree and are thankful that she is willing to be a part of this model with us.
“Models matter” kept playing in the back of our minds last week as we spent four days in Minneapolis, Minn., with representatives from about 20 principle-driven coffee roasteries that represented small and big towns from as far south as Gainesville, Fla., to as far north as Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. We gathered as individual businesses, member-owners of Cooperative Coffees, a green coffee importing cooperative, whose members represent a wide-spectrum of the specialty coffee industry. We each have different goals for sales growth, varying interpretations of quality coffee and different levels of engagement with Cooperative Coffees.
What rang true for all of us after four days of meetings, though, was that despite coming from very different landscapes in the coffee world, a principled international trade model- that operationalizes in the spirit of collaboration, kindness, presence-of-mind and respect for all involved- was a model that mattered to everyone.
“Did you know that cooperatives are the only business-type that operate by a set of principles?” asked Kevin Eldberg, executive director of Cooperative Development Services, a co-op mentoring and business development entity that has worked with newly forming co-ops for more than 25 years. Kevin spoke to our Cooperative Coffees crew and was visibly excited about Cooperative Coffees’ commitment to sourcing from small-farmer-owned coffee cooperatives.
“The impact cooperatives can have on small-farmers is amazing,” he said, later highlighting social initiatives like small schools, literacy programs and health care services that he has seen develop within coffee farmer cooperatives in Latin America.
Kevin would likely point to seven internationally recognized cooperative principles as some of the reasons farmer cooperatives have been so successful.
Those same principles are likely what keep Cooperative Coffees members coming together year after year and will help propel a motley crew of committed coffee companies and staff into a new era, led by a highly competent, creative and committed executive director, and energized by an international trade model that keeps respect, human dignity and collaboration at its core.
Viva le co-op!, we say, because we agree, models matter. After nearly 15 years of business, we are deeply grateful that our customers and fellow co-op members continue to show up and help make work a model that really matters.
Seven internationally recognized cooperative principles that help guide cooperative business practices. Quotations cited from the United Nations’ “International Year of Cooperatives” webpage.
1- Voluntary and Open Membership
2- Democratic Member Control
3- Member Economic Participation- “members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their cooperative.”
4- Autonomy and Independence- “cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members.”
5- Education, Training and Information: “cooperatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their cooperatives.”
6- Cooperation among Cooperatives
7- Concern for Community: “Co-operatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.”