Brewed Awakening: Ethical Dilemmas in the Coffee Chain
By Robert T. Hefferon '14
On June 16, 2018, less than two weeks after graduating from Williams College, I got on a plane to embark on a year of global research focused on coffee sustainability with funding from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. The foundation provides stipends annually to a group of graduating college seniors to pursue a year of independent study. While there are few rules, you’re not allowed to return to the United States for the year. Instead, you must spend time in at least two countries and conduct your research surrounding a topic which you are passionate about.
To me, there a few topics better to be passionate about than coffee. As a catalyst for conversation, a deliciously complex treat, and a tool for social empowerment, a cup of Joe appears simple on first glance, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Perhaps I would have ended up in this world of coffee were it not for my senior project at Landon. When I was a mere Middle School Bear, I heard about a Holton girl's senior project: a coffee shop on their campus. The idea of that community space and small business captured my imagination. When it came time to design my own senior project five years later, I knew that I wanted to do a similar project. I immediately received support from two friends who jumped on my team – Ed Wolins ’14 (the barista brain) and Raman Ananthanpillai ’14 (the money mind) – and nearly every member of the faculty and staff. Most importantly was the family of a recent Landon alum who helped me. They were opening a wonderful new coffee and chocolate shop in Fairfax and offered me part-time work on the weekends and holidays as a barista – eventually helping us to secure the necessary equipment and goods for the shop.
Running a fully functional coffee shop for two weeks out of the Stone Room predictably had its ups and downs, but it ended up as a success with thousands of dollars being raised for Autism Speaks and, most tellingly, years of future projects imitating the original. Personally, it taught me the ins and outs of running a small business and ignited something greater inside of me. Because of my experience at Landon, I was able to land a coveted job the following fall at Williams College as the only First-Year student employed at the student-run coffee shop. The next four years my passing interest in coffee became a passion and I had the opportunity during a semester abroad in Bolivia to spend a month conducting research on the impact of foreign investment on coffee farmers in that country. I learned a lot, but mostly just realized how much I had left to explore.
The Landon Cup and the Williams College’s Coffee Bar were both such positive community spaces. But how do you balance that with the international coffee community that so often exploits small farmers and farm workers in exchange for dirt cheap prices? As I approached the end of my time at Williams, I realized I wanted to engage more with that question and how coffee production and consumption can be done on a more sustainable basis.
I was fortunate enough to receive a Watson Fellowship to spend this year looking at just that. A little over halfway through my project, the year has brought me to the Netherlands, Ethiopia, England, Colombia, and Peru, and will see me head to Japan and Germany in the coming months. I have been pushed beyond my comfort zones, both on coffee farms in rural Ethiopia as well as in professional coffee tasting labs in Bogotá. Regardless, Landon taught me the crucial importance of being uncomfortable in order to grow. In the immortal words of Upper School English Teacher Fred Mora, “embrace the awkward.” I've certainly had my fair share of awkward experiences this year.
The independence and high standards of Landon have given me the confidence to design this research and execute it in a way that I can be proud of. I won’t be solving the international coffee crisis anytime soon, but I’m grateful that my winding path that started with caramel frappes in the Stone Room has led me to meet so many people and learn so much about coffee and the greater world.