Re:co 2019: Thought-provoking, yet a bit disappointing

The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) held its annual Expo and Re:co Symposium last week in Boston, Massachusetts. I was looking especially forward to attending Re:co this year because the topic –the first time Re:co has ever had only one for the entire symposium – was the Coffee Price Crisis. Having attended numerous conferences in coffee-producing countries that also featured that topic – but from a producer perspective, of course – I was eager to see a coffee price crisis discussion from a consuming country angle, with those who buy the coffee, roast the coffee, sell the coffee and drink the coffee, sharing their thoughts and opinions. I did not expect the Re:co Symposium to solve the coffee price problem, but I did anticipate a high level of presentations and discussions, and even possible theories on strategies to attempt to resolve the issue. The SCA gathered a formidable assortment of speakers with specialties across a variety of disciplines so the two-day symposium looked promising.

Day one of Re:co started strong. Rich Rhinehart, the former SCA executive director who is now leading the Coffee Price Crisis Initiative, opened the first session, “Macroeconomic Dysfunction in the Coffee Trade,” noting that it is a “chronic failing in the fundamentals of our marketplace that have brought about this [coffee price] problem but there are millions depending on us to address the issue and solve the problem.”

Jefferson Glassie, an attorney who represents non-profit and other tax-exempt organizations, spoke about coffee prices and anti-trust laws. Janina Grabs, a post-doctoral research associate with the University of Münster, told the audience that we have a unique opportunity in coffee to be selective in sourcing. “We have to build medium-level scaling into pricing model,” but she also asked, “how scalable is our model, really?”

The second session, “Cost of Production and Profitability for Coffee Producers,” focused on innovations and research studies being conducted on coffee farms to help increase efficiencies, productivity and sustainability. Members of the panel included Peter Dupont, co-founder and CEO of Denmark-based The Coffee Collective, which launched a coffee campaign to raise awareness among consumers of the cost of producing high quality coffee and why consumers need to pay more for that specialty coffee. Dupont said the coffee shop engaged conversations with consumers through in store promotions, advertising on cups, etc, and said that has paid 286% above market price ($4.95/lbs FOB) for high quality coffee.

Panelist Michelle Bhattacharyya, founding partner of On-Up LLC, is working with the World Banana Forum to create a living wage for banana producers and how this can work in coffee. She discussed what a living wage is and how it helps progress sustainable costs of production talks.

Session three focused on “Value Chains, Transparency and Market Linkages.” Among the five speakers, cultural anthropologist Ted Fischer explained how coffee acts as a vessel for multiple values – economic, social, moral and ideological – and how the coffee trade involves balancing different metrics of value. He also discussed how Mayan farmers have benefitted from producing specialty coffee but lack the social capital to tap into more lucrative segments of the market. In a session entitled “I’m Loving It,” writer and public speaker Michelle Johnson, discussed McDonald’s sustainability efforts and its goal to source 100% sustainable coffee by 2020. [Interestingly, the presentation highlighted everything T&CTJ discussed in its March 2018 cover story, “Sustainability Brews at McDonald’s.”]

While the first day of Re:co was strong, day two lost momentum and was disjointed. Although the theme of Re:co was supposed to be entirely on the coffee price crisis, there was a diversity segment that was out of place and confounded attendees. A number of attendees also felt that many of the sessions on the second day were too promotional and self-serving in nature. We broke into groups during the Changemaking Sessions (“Thinkers,” “Influencers,” “Skeptics”) but many speakers used the opportunity as a platform to continue their presentations and no theories on solving the issue were posed. However, one attendee in the Influencer session did suggest that instead of receiving “swag” (travel mugs, water bottles, cupping spoons), companies could sponsor several producers to attend the Re:co Symposium.

Recipients of the annual Re:co Symposium Fellowship Awards were introduced and given the opportunity to speak, and the Sustainability Award winners were also announced. Oddly though, while the new executive director, Yannis Apostolopoulos was in attendance, he was not introduced, which did not go unnoticed by attendees. Many Re:co participants admittedly attend the symposium not for the actual sessions, but to network. These attendees were frustrated that sessions continually ran long and cut into the coffee breaks (reducing some from 30 minutes to 10) and lunch.

I like the idea of a single topic at the Re:co Symposium and think it worked well as most sessions were beneficial, and the overall event was worthwhile. Members of the specialty coffee industry are quite vocal, and I’m certain that based on feedback from its members, the SCA can build on the strength of the strong segments of this symposium and work out the kinks of the weaker ones.

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